Far right campaign seeks to limit speech
Samir Chopra talks about the defamatory posters that called some BC faculty and students “terrorist supporters.”
The message on a poster plastered to a recycling bin on the Brooklyn College campus was succinct and inflammatory: “Terrorist Supporters,” it declared in all caps. Underneath that label were names of current and former Brooklyn College students (all Muslim students of color) and chiseled illustrations of two Brooklyn College professors – Corey Robin and Samir Chopra – both known for their public scholarship and who have supported freedom of expression around Palestinian issues.
At the bottom of the poster, underneath the hashtag #StopUniversitySupportForTerrorists was the web address for the California-based David Horowitz Freedom Center, identified as an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Brooklyn College is not alone in being a target of a campaign to single out professors and students as “terrorist supporters.” This semester, posters appeared on several campuses across the country, including the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Chicago. The posters aren’t the first time that the CUNY college has been singled out. Citing increasing concerns about attempts to intimidate and harass faculty, the American Association of University Professors issued guidelines for universities to resist targeted online harassment earlier this year. Already the Trump administration has called on the University of Nevada at Las Vegas to investigate one academic who criticized Trump, and key architects of the campus culture wars have close ties to the Trump administration.
The PSC chapter at Brooklyn College was quick to condemn the poster that appeared in several spots on campus on September 27, and college staff quickly removed the posters.
“By naming and depicting professors, it seeks to curb dissent and suppress academic freedom, and it places the safety of these faculty members at risk,” wrote the college’s PSC chapter chair, James Davis, in a September 28 email to members. “Faculty members must not be subjected to orchestrated campaigns of harassment and intimidation. We urge the college administration to affirm the fundamental principle of academic freedom.”
It’s easy to dismiss the poster as “frivolous and juvenile,” Davis told Clarion, but the effect of the poster and others like it may make faculty think “three times” before they say something controversial, because they may be on a poster next.
Chopra’s illustrated “mugshot” on a Horowitz Center poster isn’t stopping him from speaking his mind. “If you did back down, you would be doing what they would want you to do,” Chopra, a professor in the department of philosophy, told Clarion. “That feels like cooperating with them, which I don’t feel like doing.” Chopra admitted he is in a somewhat privileged position. He’s tenured, and he’s not looking to change jobs. But the posters and the concerted campaign against him and others who focus on Palestine, has its cost. In Chopra’s view, his days on the job market are “over.”
“Somebody in the dean or the provost’s office could sit down and do a Google search, and they could tell the department that wants to hire me, ‘That guy is this guy?’” Fearing retaliation from donors or the Board of Trustees, Chopra said, university administrators could decide to hire someone else – and he wouldn’t know.
TRUMP ADMINISTRATION TIES
All 11 names appearing on the latest Horowitz Center poster are listed on the Canary Mission website, an online “blacklist” including profiles – with names, social media handles and photos – of professors and students active on Palestinian rights, with a goal, according to a video posted on its home page, to “ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.”
The fact that he’s named on the website, Chopra said, means that every few months, his name is tweeted out by the Mission and he’s harassed online. (Nearly a dozen CUNY professors are named on the website and many CUNY students.)
The website singles out individuals, but it ensures that its supporters are hidden. The website does not name staff members; its domain is registered so ownership is hidden. The David Horowitz Freedom Center, Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum and other right-wing pro-Israel groups that focus on campuses denied any relationship with the Canary Mission, according to a May 2015 article written by Josh Nathan-Kazis in the Forward. Charles Jacobs, who was instrumental in producing “Columbia Unbecoming,” a documentary that showed the university’s Middle East studies department as unfriendly to Jewish students, replied “no comment.” Later reporting by Nathan-Kazis revealed that the Mission’s home page temporarily directed readers to the personal Twitter profile of a director of an online Israeli advocacy group, Warren Betzalel Lapidus. Even mainstream groups, including the Israel on Campus Coalition, cited the Mission’s effectiveness in being a “strong deterrent against anti-Semitism and BDS activism” and limiting activism of some student because fear of the “repercussions of public exposure.”
While there may not be a direct link between the David Horowitz Freedom Center and the Canary Mission, a September 28 article, “Brooklyn College: Advocating Genocide and a Third Intifada” in the Freedom Center’s FrontPage, names students on the poster and links to their “profile” pages on the Canary Mission website. That same article’s main image is a version of the Brooklyn College poster that appeared on campus this semester.
The article then goes on to name a litany of reasons for naming the CUNY college including the Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP) chapter’s use of certain phrases including, “the third intifada” and “Al-Nakba,” (Arabic for “disaster,” to describe the 1948 establishment of the Israeli state). The article also cited the use of “the slogan: ‘From the River to the Sea’” and activists affiliated with the SJP chapter were accused of calling one faculty member a “Zionist pig” during a faculty council meeting. However, a Brooklyn College investigation later found that no member of the Brooklyn College SJP made this comment.
The Horowitz Center is run by David Horowitz, a former 1960s left-wing radical from Forest Hills and a son of communist parents who later turned and has become what the Washington Post describes as “an intellectual godfather to the far right.” A June 3 investigation in the Post explored the “shadow” universe of right-wing charities and Horowitz’s connections to Trump officials.
In the 1990’s, Horowitz hosted a Wednesday Morning Club catered to conservatives in Los Angeles. A regular guest was former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been honored at a Horowitz-organized event. Stephen Miller, now Trump’s senior policy adviser, was a protégé of Hortowitz. Miller enlisted Horowitz’s help when he was dealing with teachers and classmates at his Santa Monica high school who were “insufficiently patriotic,” and he went on to have Horowitz speak at his high school and at Duke University, where he was an undergraduate. Once Miller graduated from college, Horowitz helped him land jobs with conservative lawmakers.
Last fall, the Horowitz Freedom Center issued a list of “the top 10 schools supporting terrorists,” which included Brooklyn College. The Center, according to a website affiliated with it, “conducted a guerrilla postering campaign on the campus.” During that campaign, it decided to target a Brooklyn College master’s student Raja Abdulhaq with an illustrated poster of him with the hashtag #JewHatred.
“The main purpose [of this campaign] is not to shame people. The main objective is to stop them from doing what they’re doing,” Abdulhaq, who is studying political science and international relations, told Clarion. “There’s no way that they’ll stop and intimidate me.”
While he’s undeterred, Abdulhaq said the intimidation has had its effects. A couple of students have approached him personally and said that they’re cutting down their activism with SJP, citing their concerns about their family and job prospects after college. One recent Brooklyn College graduate – who was active in SJP, wears a hijab and has her name and photo posted on the Canary Mission website – had a study abroad poster with her picture on it defaced (her eyes were blacked out and there was an upside-down cross drawn on her forehead).
The most recent posters prompted more than 80 Brooklyn College faculty and staff to sign a letter addressed to CUNY Chancellor James Milliken, calling on him to issue a public statement explaining and condemning the poster and the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
“These posters are an insidious and utterly unacceptable attempt to intimidate and defame members of this college and the larger academic community and have an intense and chilling impact on the young people targeted and the broader student community,” stated the October 4 letter.
WEAK CUNY RESPONSE
Milliken did not publicly issue a statement, but sent an October 13 email to Brooklyn College faculty and staff calling the poster “troubling.” “I share in your strong condemnation of crude attempts to restrict protected speech through intimidation,” he wrote. He also said he stood behind Brooklyn College Michelle Anderson’s statement, which was released less than a week after the posters appeared on campus.
“[The poster] seeks to defame and silence specific individuals for their political opinions by placing them at risk for further harassment and abuse,” wrote Anderson in an October 2 email to students, staff and faculty. “We reject these tactics, especially in the context of an academic community, where robust discourse on matters of great public import is central to our educational project.”
Neither Milliken nor Anderson named the Horowitz Freedom Center in their statements, nor, as of press time, were there steps taken to restore the reputations of students and faculty who were defamed by the posters.
For concerned Brooklyn College faculty, students and staff, the administration’s response is not enough.
“[Milliken] should name the Horowitz Freedom Center as a menace to the university’s values and the safety of students and faculty, even if it means giving the Horowitz people the publicity they crave,” PSC Brooklyn College Chapter Chair James Davis told Clarion. “Otherwise, it’s a squandered opportunity to demonstrate administrative leadership.”