The fiery NYC Council Member Inna Vernikov (right) is “Inna” lot of trouble for violating New York’s no open carry law. (photo credit: Erik McGregor)
Chilling incidents at Brooklyn College and beyond have raised questions about CUNY Central’s commitment to protecting community members equally and the right to free speech on campus – and the union is speaking up about it.
Tensions have been running high on college campuses since the start of the ongoing conflict in southern Israel and the Gaza Strip. Having condemned the Hamas attack of October 7, the PSC has also sought to ensure that the rights to open dialogue and peaceful demonstrations are protected.
ARMED ON CAMPUS
On October 13, City Council Member Inna Vernikov, a firebrand Republican from South Brooklyn who also serves on the Higher Education Committee and Committee on Standards and Ethics, was “charged with criminal possession of a firearm after images posted on social media showed her carrying a gun in her waistband at a pro-Palestinian rally at Brooklyn College the previous day,” the New York Times reported. She also “surrendered her weapon – a Smith & Wesson 9-millimeter pistol – and her permit.”
As the Times explained, while “New York issues permits to carry concealed firearms,” Vernikov was “openly carrying a firearm,” which is illegal.
A number of her colleagues and political groups have called for an investigation into the matter, and several have called for her expulsion from the New York City Council.
The CUNY community has reported that other demonstrations in relation to the conflict have been suppressed.
PSC President James Davis addressed these concerns on October 25 in a letter to Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez.
“The administrations at three colleges then prevented members of the CUNY community from holding pro-Palestinian rallies on their campuses….
“At one, students were informed that class attendance was optional on the day of the demonstration. This restriction and guidance prioritized the rights of one segment of the CUNY community over another, which was equated with terrorist sympathizers who posed a danger,” Davis said.
Davis added, “When a manifestly dangerous action did occur, you and your administration were silent. The Brooklyn College demonstration was loud but peaceful. When a City Council member brought a pistol to the event, openly visible at her waist, she was arrested the next morning for criminal possession of a firearm, a class E felony, and CUNY said nothing. We cannot imagine you condone the council member’s actions, yet your silence in the face of real danger to students and employees, a clear act of intimidation by an elected official, is deafening. We urge you to call publicly for accountability for Inna Vernikov, as many New York City and State leaders have.”
But the problem with free speech and expression at CUNY goes beyond the issue of turmoil in the Middle East. CUNY advocates were stunned in October when the CUNY Board of Trustees converted its regular in-person hearing to an online-only event. Advocates fear that the administration is using widespread anxiety about the Middle East conflict to clamp down on other forms of expression.
“You and the Board of Trustees also violated the state’s Open Meeting Law and a bylaw of the board. The October 16 Manhattan public hearing was moved fully online with one working day’s notice and without explanation,” Davis said. “Dozens of PSC members had registered to attend to speak about our contract demands and the board’s responsibility to secure funding for CUNY. But no member of the public could see or hear other participants, nor were they informed of a location to observe or deliver testimony, pursuant to Section 103(a) of the Open Meeting Law.”
Davis added, “Only a declaration of a state disaster emergency or the mayor’s declaration of a local state of emergency allow a public body such as the CUNY Board to suspend the statutory in-person requirements. We are stunned by the disrespect shown by you and the board for the law and spirit of open meetings. It is antithetical to a public university’s operation and serves to suppress expression and dissent.”
In addition, York College administration attempted to shut down a planned PSC speak-out on campus in October. The event eventually went on as planned, but union activists were stunned that campus safety was invoked to forestall a contract campaign rally for faculty and staff.
For the PSC, this is a fight about the value of dialogue, learning and discussion throughout the University and academia. Indeed, student activism continues, as Gothamist reported on October 25: “Students at CUNY, Columbia University, NYU and several other New York City colleges walked out of their classes” to show “support of Palestinians as tensions in New York City over the Israel-Hamas war continue to mount.”
“The PSC has expressed support for those seeking to create the possibility for just, humanitarian solutions rather than escalating violence,” Davis said. “Students, faculty and staff have a right, indeed an obligation, to speak up on issues about which they feel strongly.”
But in the eyes of the PSC, CUNY administration has not shown that commitment. “Your recent decisions threaten to chill public speech and assembly, not only about the war but also on issues such as labor contracts and funding for our colleges,” Davis said.
University Faculty Senate (UFS) Chair John Verzani said that CUNY should strive to adopt a more concrete policy toward free speech on campus. “CUNY has yet to adopt a Freedom of Expression policy,” he said. “The UFS has been advocating and encouraging CUNY to adopt a policy for many years that could support the faculty, students and leadership in better meeting the challenge and promise of intellectual discourse during moments fraught with conflict and disagreement. As we continue to observe, additional difficulties confront us as a public university when public news media describe events in terms that amplify controversy and suspicion, and pressure public figures to react quickly. A Freedom of Expression policy might better help the University navigate the tough times ahead.”
Published: November 15, 2023
Last Modified: November 17, 2023