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City University of New York’s ‘long history of speech suppression’

Should we be surprised when a university’s persistent hostility to free speech results in students who treat speech rights the same way?

That’s the question raised by David Seidemann recent post at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. Seidemann, a professor at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, writes that his school has “a very bad record” on free speech, that it has a “long history of speech suppression,” and that the “slippery slope” of censorship is having a deleterious effect on campus climate.

Seidemann’s Brooklyn Colelge “has been particularly aggressive in suppressing speech,” he writes. Several instances of that: “In 1996, the college arbitrarily canceled a referendum on the issue. A New York court ordered it reinstated. In 1997, the college blocked a similar referendum based on the (risible) claim that the students running it had libeled NYPIRG in a campaign poster by portraying the group as a rat. The college agreed to rescind that decision in a federal court stipulation.”

“In 1998, the college refused to allow students to even start petitioning for a referendum, but a federal court ordered the college to permit petitioning. In 2001, the college refused to allow students all the allowed time for petitioning. That too was reversed in a federal court stipulation.”

The school’s continual losses in court have not stopped it from continuing to attack speech on its campus. Just a few years ago, Seidemann writes, several pro-Israel students were removed from an anti-Israel meeting; a staff member claimed that the students had been “disruptive,” but audio evidence proved this was a lie. In 2017, activists on the campus put up posters attacking two professors who had demonstrated in favor of a Hamas-led government; the president of the university claimed these posters were defamatory instances of “targeted intimidation.” (Hamas is internationally recognized as a terrorist group.)

Seidemann notes that this anti-free-speech ethos has rubbed off on the students of the school:

The consequence of shielding campuses from controversial political thoughts (whether from off-campus posters or guest speakers) is predictable: the reinforcement of group-think. If CUNY administrators repeatedly and willfully violate First Amendment rights, is it any surprise that CUNY students fail to grasp the value of free speech and the legal protection that it is afforded?

Sure enough, last year there were three noteworthy student-led campaigns targeting the protected speech of wrong-thinking faculty. Two of those campaigns comprised standard demonstrations and letters demanding that action be taken by college administrators. The third, however, represents a noteworthy and very troubling escalation…

Read the rest of the essay here.

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