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We defend Sarsour’s speech rights

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For the past few weeks, right-wing and conservative religious groups have protested the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy’s invitation to Linda Sarsour, an Arab-American activist and co-organizer of the national Women’s March on Washington in January, to speak at its graduation. They called on New York’s governor and the city’s mayor to force the school to withdraw the invitation.

Civil rights activist Linda Sarsour delivered a commencement address at CUNY’s School of Public Health amidst right-wing activists protesting the decision to let her speak.
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This is not the first time conservatives have tried to pressure CUNY to rescind an invitation to a speaker who disagreed with their views on Israel. In 2011, in response to outside pressure, the CUNY Board of Trustees voted to force John Jay College of Criminal Justice to disinvite Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Later, CUNY rejected that view [Editor’s note: CUNY allowed the talk after PSC and activist pressure]. And in 2013, when Brooklyn College received strong criticism for cosponsoring a panel discussion about the movement that calls for economic boycotts and sanctions against Israel, Mayor Michael Bloomberg observed, “If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.”

FREE SPEECH RIGHTS

As distinguished professors in various disciplines at CUNY, most of us Jewish, we support the right of our colleges to select graduation speakers and of our students to hear the views of those who are bringing new voices into the nation’s political discourse.

In an era when free speech is under threat, we feel it is an essential task of the university to provide a space where diverse points of view can be aired and debated. What could be more central than this to the maintenance of our democracy? Right-wing critics are quick to complain when college students protest inviting speakers like Betsy DeVos, Milo Yiannopoulos or Charles Murray to speak on campus, but feel justified in calling for limits on free speech when they disagree with speakers, a double standard that fundamentally misunderstands the First Amendment.

Like other Americans, CUNY students and faculty disagree about Israeli – and American – politics, policies and leaders. In our classrooms, clubs, civic organizations and even at faculty gatherings, we take pride in these often difficult, but always enlightening discussions. Such differences, and our willingness to hear multiple perspectives, highlight our strength as a crucible for democratic discourse. Colleges and universities should not establish rules about which political views can be discussed and debated and which cannot.

The CUNY School of Public Health selected Linda Sarsour to deliver the keynote address June 1 because the selection committee believed she represents the new activism of young people, women, immigrants and others speaking out against discrimination and intolerance and in favor of democracy, solidarity and human rights. In 2012, President Barack Obama designated Sarsour a Champion of Change. The White House observed that “Linda’s strengths are in the areas of community development, youth empowerment, community organizing, civic engagement and immigrants’ rights advocacy.”

Time magazine recently named Sarsour one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2017 because of her work in organizing the Women’s March, and Fortune magazine also included her on their 2017 list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has written that the Women’s March was “a lightning bolt of awakening for so many women and men who demanded to be heard…and it happened because four extraordinary women [including Sarsour] had the courage to take on something big, important and urgent…. The images of January 21, 2017, show a diverse, dynamic America – striving for equality for all.”

NEW VOICES

That’s the person and message that the School of Public Health honored at its graduation. The others honored at the graduation ceremonies included Chirlane McCray, the first lady of New York City, for her work in promoting better access to mental-health services, and Mary Bassett, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who has led municipal initiatives to reduce racial, ethnic and income inequalities in health in the city. In the view of the selection committee, these three women represent new voices for more inclusive activist approaches to improving public health and social justice.

In their opposition to inviting Sarsour, conservative and religious critics cited her alleged connection to Arab militant organizations and her condemnation of Israeli policies and leaders. If American universities invited only graduation speakers whose every statement and tweet over their lifetime offended no one on the right or left or in any religious group, our graduation ceremonies would be dull and vacuous, inspiring no one and detached from the larger world.

BROAD SUPPORT

Fortunately, other important voices in New York City supported the School of Public Health’s right to decide whom to invite. An editorial in the New York Daily News chastised critics of the invitation for objecting to cancellation of right-wing speakers at other universities and asserted that “her right to deliver the address ought not be in question.” Two New York rabbis wrote a Daily News op-ed calling Sarsour “a friend to Jews.” CUNY Chancellor James Milliken noted that, while he disagreed with Sarsour’s position on some issues, “difference of opinion provides no basis for action now. Taking action because critics object to the content of speech would conflict with the First Amendment and the principles of academic freedom.”

CUNY has long prided itself on providing a path for equitable access to higher education, a crucible for democracy, a place where faculty and students can hear and debate controversial ideas, and an institution that cherishes social justice and freedom of speech. In its selection of Sarsour, the School of Public Health graduation honors those principles.

Meena Alexander, Michelle Fine and Gerald Markowitz are distinguished professors at the Graduate Center. Nicholas Freudenberg is a distinguished professor at the Graduate School of Public Health. Rosalind Petschesky is a distinguished professor emerita of political science at the Graduate Center. A version of this article first appeared in Inside Higher Ed.