News Report: Disruption at UC Berkeley law dean’s home poses question about free speech


A video showing a contentious moment between a University of California, Berkeley student and a law professor and dean at their home has gone viral.

The encounter follows months of disputes between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students.

The video has stirred accusations that the respected law school dean violated the student’s constitutional rights.

Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and his wife, Professor Catherine Fisk, who are Jewish, were hosting a celebratory dinner at their home for graduating law students.

The dinner was scheduled to happen on the last day of Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims. The event marked the first of three nights that Chemerinsky and his wife were hosting students.

Malak Afaneh, a member of Law Students for Justice in Palestine, said her organization were initially boycotting the dinner and shared a poster reading, “No dinner with Zionist Chem while Gaza starves.”

“We thought that this dinner was kind of disgusting and extravagant and lavish, a display of wealth that was already being funneled using our tuition money for this genocide,” said Afaneh.

In a lengthy statement, Chemerinsky called the posters antisemitic; however, I felt that though deeply offensive, they were speech protected by the First Amendment.”

Despite the posters, Chemerinsky proceeded with the dinner. Afaneh and about 10 other students decided to attend.

Video footage shows Afaneh speaking into a mic at the dinner as Fisk attempts to grab it.

“Please leave my house, you are guests in my house,” Fisk is heard saying in the video.

Afaneh said, “We were invited to the premises and we would willfully, willfully leave the premises. So that had always been the plan. We had even done a criminal defense consult with the National Lawyers Guild, who, you know, pretty much thought this was a pretty low-risk action.”

Chemerinsky said that he and his wife approached the woman and asked her to stop and leave.

“The woman continued. When she continued, there was an attempt to take away her microphone. Repeatedly, we said to her that you are a guest in our home, please stop and leave,” the dean said.

The video shows Fisk snatching the mic from Afaneh’s hand.

“She kept on grabbing inappropriately at my breasts, and kept grabbing in my shirt area, trying to tug and pull,” the woman recounted. Afaneh considers the action an assault and a violation of her First Amendment rights.

“I was in pain, and I was scared, and I was terrified of what she was going to do to my body,” she said.

Chemerinsky said that his home is not a forum for free speech.

“Any student who disrupts will be reported to student conduct and a violation of the student conduct code is reported to the Bar,” he said.

Civil Rights Attorney Laura Powell weighed in on the incident.

“That was his private residence. The First Amendment doesn’t apply in that kind of place,” said Powell, who added that Chemerinsky is respected around the country for his work in constitutional rights.

Powell believes the dean was well within his rights to remove the student from his property.

“As soon as the dean and, his wife, who’s a law professor, told her to leave at that point, she was trespassing,” said Powell.

She added that it would be hard to prove that the actions of Fisk were assault in a court of law.

“It’s hard to imagine why a prosecutor who has a lot of discretion to choose whether to prosecute any crime, would attempt to prosecute this as assault or given the fact that the person was arguably trespassing at that point,” said Powell.

Chemerinsky and Fisk have not responded to KTVU’s request for further comment. It is unclear whether the dinner event was funded by the university.

Chemerinsky said that he will be hosting the two other dinners planned for Wednesday and Thursday with security present.

Afaneh said she plans to take legal action against the school.