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City College of New York reverses cancellation of pro-Palestine event after pressure from legal groups

Last week, the City College of New York announced that it had reversed its cancellation of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter’s book event featuring Israeli-American activist and author Miko Peled.

According to Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights, CCNY’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter first submitted a request in January 2018 to host Peled to discuss his new book, The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine. The event was originally planned for March 8 and later postponed to May 3.

On April 18, SJP’s board met with Director of Student Life & Leadership Development O'Lanso Gabbidon, who informed the group that Peled’s speaking event would be cancelled. SJP’s account of the meeting is quite alarming from a free speech perspective:

At the meeting, Gabbidon told SJP that CCNY was cancelling the May 3, 2018 Peled event because CCNY’s administration found his views “particularly controversial.” Gabbidon stated that CCNY wanted to make sure there was “civil discourse” across the college, that the issue of Peled speaking on campus was “deeply political” and that the administration was concerned with negative news coverage.

Of course, as FIRE has pointed out ad nauseam, speech does not lose its First Amendment protection because it is “particularly controversial” or “deeply political.”

Gabbidon reportedly asked SJP to consider rescheduling the event for next semester, “because the CCNY’s president needed to attend, the university needed more time to research the speaker, and because CCNY would want to arrange ‘at least two moderators’ for the event.” Later that day, Gabbidon emailed SJP’s board members offering a different justification for the event’s cancellation, claiming that “since there wasn’t an eApp [event application] as well as the appropriate contracts and disbursement filed before the appropriate deadline,” the event must be postponed. SJP members met with Gabbidon on April 23, pointing out that their repeated requests for an eApp had been ignored by CCNY.

On April 25, Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights wrote to Chancellor James B. Milliken of the City University of New York System, of which CCNY is a member institution, and CCNY President Vincent Boudreau. Their letter rightfully warned CCNY that “there is longstanding legal precedent that a public college may not impede a student group’s right to expression because it is controversial” and that “CCNY’s justification for cancelling SJP’s May 3 event evinces unconstitutional content and viewpoint-based discrimination.”

This is not the first time an SJP chapter has faced censorship due to the perceived controversial nature of its speech. Since December 2016, Fordham University’s SJP chapter has been fighting for official group recognition after being rejected by Fordham’s Dean of Students Keith Eldredge, who wrote that he “cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country” and that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … often leads to polarization rather than dialogue.”

FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to Fordham in defense of SJP twice, reminding the university of the promises it makes regarding students’ free expression. In response to Fordham’s stubborn refusal to honor the rights it promises to students and recognize SJP, the group filed a lawsuit against the university last April. That lawsuit is still ongoing.

Unlike Fordham University, however, CCNY relented last week and announced that it would not impede SJP’s event. Palestine Legal reports that “Paul F. Occhiogrosso, Executive Counsel to the President, wrote Palestine Legal on Friday stating that the event would be allowed to proceed as planned” and that “a Student Affairs administrator apologized to SJP on behalf of the Vice President.”

FIRE is glad to see that CCNY ended its efforts to censor SJP and hopes that other universities attempting to stifle “controversial” speech follow suit.

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