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CUNY Responds To BDS Activism On Campuses With Move To Control Free Expression

The City University of New York (CUNY), one of the nation’s largest public college systems, has proposed a policy to regulate freedom of expression. A graduate of CUNY’s School of Law and co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild, Suzanne Adely, says Palestinian solidarity activism was partly responsible for the proposal.

“It’s our belief that the reason why this policy was drafted in 2013 and again reintroduced in 2016 has a lot to do with pressure that has been coming from institutions and politicians that seek to silence any criticism of Israel on campus,” Adely contended.

This example is one of many—including disinviting commencement speakers and demonstrating against screenings—seen nationwide as college administrators have struggled to find a suitable response to student demonstrations. Even some faculty are worried. For them, it is attack on free speech and expression.

The proposal would officially establish a policy on what constitutes free speech and not only prohibits disruptions against individual people, but at the 24 CUNY campuses as well. Examples of what it bars include physical harm, preventing a speaker from talking, occupying public buildings, harassment and making loud noises that affects “scheduled or routine University functions or activities.”

This effort to regulate speech on CUNY campuses comes weeks after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order, which could negatively impact the university’s funding. The governor’s order created a blacklist for companies and institutions supportive of the boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) movement against Israel, and requires the state to end its investments in entities on the list.

Adely told the Board of Trustees that lawyers could successfully challenge the university’s proposal on constitutional grounds. Many students, faculty and staff opposed the measure and cited it as anti-free speech. A petition was created for CUNY officials, such as Chancellor James Milliken, to remove the policy from consideration. As of July 11, 509 people signed the petition.

The Doctoral Student Council (DSC), which represents graduate and doctoral students at the CUNY Graduate Center, immediately opposed the measure after hearing about it.

Hamad Sindhi, co-chair of communications for the DSC, told Shadowproof that the organization first heard about it through the University Student Senate (USS), the inter-campus governing body of CUNY, in late May. He felt concerned that, if enacted, it would limit free expression at the university.

“We are concerned about the implications of the proposed policy, as well as the secretive and undemocratic process by which the proposed policy was steamrolled through for a vote in the summer when many faculty and students are on recess,” he said.

Sindhi also noted this is not the first time this policy was brought up—a similar proposal was made in 2013 that was “explicitly rejected by several CUNY governance bodies and student groups.”

Days before an open hearing about the policy on June 20, CUNY removed sections creating designated zones on campuses for protests. Despite this, many still fiercely opposed the proposal.

On the day of the hearing, the university held an open hearing to the public at Hostos Community College before the CUNY Board of Trustees would vote on the policy on June 27. CUNY officials, from Chancellor James Milliken to many Board of Trustees member, attended the hearing.

Frederick Schaffer, CUNY’s General Counsel and Senior Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs, spoke first and defended the policy by saying it did not limit speech. Rather, it would officially create a policy on what free expression is at CUNY. In addition, he highlighted how the policy included input from professors and staff during its creation.

“We had, for many decades, no policy on freedom of expression,” he said. “At a time, when many people across the country have called for limiting freedom of expression, based on what on some people call offensive views, the Chancellor thought it was extremely important to develop and present to the board a policy that would establish clearly…that freedom of expression knows no point of view.”

Yet most speakers remained deeply opposed to a policy they viewed as harmful. Liza Shapiro, founder of the petition and professor at Hunter College, disagree with Schaffer’s claim that professors and staff helped work on it. As the DSC’s liaison to the University Faculty Senate, she never recalled it brought up at plenaries throughout the past year. Furthermore, she said the USS received the policy on May 26 and did not have enough time to comment on it.

“I would also like to add that the proposed policy blatantly targets means of protests that have been successfully used by the most pressing social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter. As the majority of CUNY students are students of color, poor and working class, this is particularly appalling,” she said.

Some speakers disagreed with other sections in the proposal. Robert Farrell, a professor at Lehman College in Bronx, cited one part in the document that allows administrators to let reporters speak with professors and staff at designated zones where the interviewee has authority or permission. The section also bars reporters from entering “non-public areas” such as libraries and classrooms. The college would have the right to remove journalists if they “interfere with a college’s normal operations.”

“To put forward such a requirement is not only an attempt to limit free speech and free press, [but also] just plain looks bad, and I personally don’t want CUNY to be seen as the Donald Trump of higher education,” Farrell told the board.

Some members from the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the union representing more than 25,000 professors and staff, also attended. The PSC recently reached a contract deal with CUNY after six years of bargaining. But the PSC did not support CUNY’s latest idea.

“I find it shocking that after failing for six years to produce a fair, economic offer to the unionized employees, the board’s next action is to limit speech, demonstrations and expression,” PSC President Barbara Bowen said.

Leon Campbell, a student at Hunter College, told the board the proposal would not stop activists from organizing. Afterward, he explained to Shadowproof that he did not agree with CUNY’s concerns about activism nationwide.

“Students have a lot of freedom [at the university], in a certain sense. If you’re going to take that little freedom away—and you’re going to use this place to create our future society—then that’s going to have horrible implications,” Campbell said.

A few days after the hearing, the university announced it would delay a vote on the policy. Both the Chancellor and Chairperson of the Board of Trustees “determined that there should be additional consultation and discussion” before a vote on the policy after the June 20 hearing. Therefore, it was not voted on June 27.

CUNY and the University Faculty Senate did not respond to questions by Shadowproof.

Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan is a freelance journalist in Queens, NY and written for publications such as The Nation, In These Times, Truthout and more.