On February 16, 2016, Harvard Law School Justice for Palestine (HLS-JP) group published a letter in the Harvard Law Record, claiming that NGO Monitor pressured a law firm, Milbank LLP, to end its funding for the law school. This was, according to HLS-JP, in response to an event “about free speech and its exceptions.” Similar allegations were made by Electronic Intifada, and the story was reported in a number of news outlets and proBDS platforms.

Through correspondence with administrators at Harvard Law School, NGO Monitor learned that the law firm chose to reallocate its financial support from student activities to other university functions. According to Harvard Law School, Milbank never requested that HLS-JP be excluded from the Milbank Tweed Student Conference Fund.

In covering the story, several pro-BDS publications falsely portrayed Milbank’s decision to reallocate funds as an attack on free speech. Instead, their distorted accounts systematically deny Milbank the right to choose how to allocate (and not allocate) charitable funding, and thereby exercise its own freedom of speech. This episode also highlights the irony of BDS groups actively seeking to silence all pro-Israel voices, and then complaining that their own freedom of speech has been violated.

What precipitated the controversy regarding Milbank funding?

On October 20, 2015, the HLS-JP group hosted Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) for an event entitled “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack.” In addition to their advocacy for demonization of Israel through BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) and legal attacks (“lawfare”), these organizations provide various forms of legal assistance to campus BDS activists in the United States. The speakers alleged that pro-Palestinian speech is restricted on campuses.

The initial promotion for the event referenced the sponsorship of Milbank LLP. Within the context of research into BDS activities and funding on American campuses, NGO Monitor sent a letter to leading members of the firm to corroborate the claim that Milbank had sponsored the event and to ascertain if there were other partnerships between the firm and these organizations. NGO Monitor asked Milbank the following questions1:

  1. Can you confirm that Milbank LLP initially sponsored this event? Which attorney and department in the firm were responsible for the sponsorship?
  2. If so, what was the amount of the sponsorship?
  3. Did the funds go to HLS Justice for Palestine, Palestine Legal, and/or CCR? What additional persons or entities received funding under this sponsorship?
  4. What is the nature of the relationship between Milbank LLP and these three organizations? Has Milbank LLP sponsored other events involving these groups? Does Milbank provide legal assistance to these organizations?

Milbank’s response

The firm responded on October 22 by clarifying the nature of its relationship with Harvard Law School. Milbank made it clear that the funding it provides for student activities through the Milbank Tweed Student Conference Fund is administered by the Dean of Students, and Milbank does not approve specific events.

Additionally, according to the response, HLS-JP was required to remove the reference to Milbank’s sponsorship from the webpage promoting the event, to correct the “false impression that Milbank endorsed the views expressed by group [sic].”

HLS-JP Claims Milbank Cuts Funding

On February 16, 2016, HLS-JP published a letter to the editor of the Harvard Law Record, claiming that as a result of the controversy surrounding their October 2015 event, Milbank requested that HLS-JP not be allowed to access the Milbank Tweed Student Conference Fund. According to HLS-JP, the Dean of Students rejected this request, leading Milbank to pull its funding for student activities altogether.

Harvard Law School’s response to the Harvard Law Record

Following HLS-JP’s accusations in the Harvard Law Record, on February 17, NGO Monitor requested clarification from both Harvard Law School and Milbank regarding their relationship. Milbank directed inquiries to the university.

Dear Dean Minow,

NGO Monitor is a Jerusalem-based research institute that analyzes the publications and funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Harvard Law School Justice for Palestine (HLSJP) is alleging that Milbank LLP has discontinued its financial support for student activities at Harvard Law School through the Milbank Tweed Student Conference Fund.

As part of our ongoing research, we ask the following questions:

  1. Can you confirm that Milbank LLP has discontinued funding for the Milbank Tweed Student Conference Fund?
  2. If so, can you confirm the allegation of HLSJP that the decision to discontinue funding followed Milbank LLP’s request to exclude HLSJP from Milbank Tweed Student Conference Fund funds?
  3. If so, can you confirm that this request was rejected by the Harvard Law School Dean’s Office?

Thank you,
Yona Schiffmiller
North America Desk

Response (February 17)

Dear Yona,

Milbank never asked Harvard Law School to exclude JFP from receiving support from the fund. Milbank was never involved in decisions about which events to fund or not to fund. The Law School and Milbank are committed to freedom of speech and they did not decide which events to fund based on point of view. Milbank has not terminated its gift or its support for the Law School. We have an exceptionally strong relationship with the Milbank firm, which has acted appropriately and with the highest integrity in all discussions and decisions about how to best support the mission of the Law School.

Robb London
Assistant Dean
Harvard Law School

  • According to Harvard Law School’s response to NGO Monitor’s inquiries, Milbank never requested that HLS-JP be excluded from the Milbank Tweed Student Conference Fund.
  • In a later correspondence, Harvard Law School Assistant Dean Robb London stated clearly that “[Milbank’s] gift will now be directed towards supporting other needs at Harvard Law School.”

Milbank’s Public Clarification

On February 24, Milbank published a clarification regarding its support for Harvard Law School. This statement rejected the false accusations made by BDS supporters, along the lines of the university’s position:

  • The firm confirmed that it “had no input whatsoever into the selection of student organizations or journals to receive grants from the Fund.”
  • With regards to the reference to Milbank sponsorship of the HLS-JP event, Milbank reiterated that “This statement created a false impression, among many who viewed it, that the firm endorsed the views expressed by the group. At the request of the Law School, the sponsoring student organization removed the statement relating to Milbank from its Facebook page about the event.”
  • The firm rejected that accusations that it had cut funding for the school altogether:
    “Milbank has not terminated its five-year gift or its support for the Law School, and never threatened to do so. Nor did Milbank demand that any funding previously provided to any Harvard student group be rescinded. Nor did Milbank demand that Harvard withhold funds from the student group in question or any other group. In light of the false impression engendered by the Facebook page noted above, however, we did make the decision to look for alternative ways to support the Law School. Our motivation was solely to avoid the risk of future misimpressions that the firm endorses specific viewpoints expressed by any particular student organization or journal.”

False freedom of speech narrative and distortion

  • Both HLS-JP and media outlets, including pro-BDS platforms, framed the reallocation of Milbank funding in the context of impinging on the freedom of speech of HLS-JP. However, this narrative denies Milbank the right to exercise its own freedom of speech in the form of not funding activities and events that it finds objectionable.