Yale Clears Student Arrested in Westport Protest

Williams and supporters hold a prayer prior to the hearing.

Williams and supporters hold a prayer prior to the hearing.

New Haven activists Gregory Williams and Dan Fischer have already been to court for the first degree trespassing and breach of peace charges they were dealt after getting arrested for their protest of a Connecticut Friends of the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] fundraiser in Westport, but Williams faced a hearing of a different kind last week.

Yale University’s Divinity School, from which he was set to graduate from, withheld his diploma and considered a range of disciplinary actions that included expulsion and suspension. But on Friday-the day after an ad hoc faculty committee held a two hour hearing with Williams on the matter-he got the word from Yale Divinity School Dean Gregory Sterling: the university found “no evidence of serious moral misconduct”.

Williams has to be surprised. He, Fischer-who spoke as a witness-and Peter Goselin, an attorney who sat in on the proceeding but was not allowed to participate, were the only non-Committee personnel allowed in the meeting, but when Williams came out of the session following a lengthy discussion that had not yet yielded a verdict, he was less than optimistic.

“I think they might expel me,” he told a group of about 15 supporters that had gathered in the lounge area outside the Divinity School’s JE Dining Room.

Goselin did not seem to believe otherwise.

“That’s definitely a possibility,” he said. “They’re certainly going to do something.”

But they didn’t-an uncharacteristic break in a string of angry reactions to what both Williams and Fischer have described as an attempt at peaceful protest.

It happened on May 12. Friends of the IDF was hosting IDF Bridgade General Gila Klifi-Amir at their fundraiser luncheon, held at the Temple of Israel in Westport. Concerned with the deaths of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip conflict, Williams and Fischer arrived at the Temple hoping to read the testimony of Nabilah Abu Hamila, a Palestinian woman who lost her son in a 2009 Israeli bombing, and her home when tensions between the sides again escalated last summer.

“I didn’t expect them to applaud us, but I didn’t expect them to call the police and dive under tables,” Fischer told the group last Thursday.

That’s what they say occurred when the two entered the building and voiced their intentions. A call to the Westport Police Department alleged that one of them was carrying a gun-a report that prompted the lock down of three nearby schools, a nursery, and a church, as well as the manpower of both the Westport and Weston Police Departments.

Williams and Fischer were arrested at the scene, but a Westport Police Department press release stated that the protesters were not carrying weapons. The statement said that the caller had mistaken Fischer’s over shirt-slung over his shoulder as the two walked through the Temple’s parking lot-for a firearm. Fischer himself confirmed that he had been carrying the shirt that way, but said he had put it on by the time they were inside the building. The press release also alleges that the two had to be physically prevented by synagogue security from entering the meeting room, but Fischer and Williams claim that they were immediately “tackled” when they began making their statement.

Williams and Fischer would tell their version of that story to the Committee, which, according to Goselin, was trying to determine-among other things-whether or not the event goers reaction should have been expected.

When contacted via email, Dean Sterling said that he could not comment on the issue, but Williams said before the hearing that the Committee would be looking to determine whether the protest constituted “hate speech”-an allegation that, according to Goselin, came not from the Committee but from witnesses at the event.

But Goselin described the protesters’ alleged references to the “Free Palestine” movement as “political speech”, saying that their statement was not one expressing hostility toward people based on race, nationality, or religion.

Williams told the Committee that his attempts to deescalate the situation included stating that they were unarmed, that the protest was intended to be nonviolent, and that they were prepared to leave if directed to, according to Goselin.

“As a matter of what the facts are, it’s clear that nothing Dan or Greg did caused any terror,” Goselin said.

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