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NYC Lawmakers Threaten Brooklyn College Over Controversial Forum

The last few days have seen controversy brewing over a planned event at Brooklyn College. The planned February 7 event, titled "BDS Movement Against Israel" and co-sponsored by several student groups as well as Brooklyn College's political science department, is slated to feature Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti, two proponents of the push to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (hence the "BDS" shorthand).

Particularly controversial has been the political science department's co-sponsorship of the event—which some have criticized as constituting an official endorsement of the event and the views of its speakers by Brooklyn College. Political Science Chair Paisley Currah has released a clarifying statement promising that "We welcome—indeed encourage—requests to co-sponsor speakers and events from all student groups, departments, and programs." Currah further writes that "[e]ach and every request will be given equal consideration." The college, meanwhile, has firmly defended the department's academic freedom, with spokesperson Jeremy Thompson telling the New York Post that

As a university, we are committed to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. We don't tell student groups or academic departments what topics they can or cannot discuss.

(Glad to hear this positive attitude towards academic freedom, since that hasn't always been the case.) Additionally, Brooklyn College President Karen L. Gould issued a letter to the campus stating that

[I]t is incumbent upon us to uphold the tenets of academic freedom and allow our students and faculty to engage in dialogue and debate on topics they may choose, even those with which members of our campus and broader community may vehemently disagree.

City University of New York (which includes Brooklyn College) Chancellor Matthew Goldstein has publicly backed Gould, and like Gould has taken a strong stand for the right to freedom of speech that makes controversial events such as the planned BDS forum possible.

All this has not mollified critics, however, and now several New York City public officials are joining the fray. Amy Schiller of The Daily Beast reported that Assemblyman Dov Hikind convened a press conference condemning the event and the Brooklyn College administration:

The crowd of about forty press, students, and activists included Assemblymen Steve Cymbrowitz and Michael Simanowitz, Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs and Helene Weinstein and Assembly District Leader Ari Kagan, and was convened by Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who repeatedly denounced college president Karen Gould-saying "show some leadership!"—and the chair of the department, Paisley Currah, whom he called "a coward."

(If the name Dov Hikind is familiar to you, it's because it was Hikind who led the charge to get a student instructor fired from a teaching position at Brooklyn College two years ago, due to his perceived views on Middle Eastern politics. The instructor was reinstated after criticism from FIRE and others.)

More worrying, though, is that in addition to Hikind, several New York City officials have gone far past rhetoric and into the realm of threats against the college's funding. As The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald notes, New York City Council Assistant Majority Leader Lewis Fidler, along with nine other council members, issued a letter making veiled financial threats against the college if it proceeds with the event as is. Here is the particularly troublesome language:

A significant portion of the funding for CUNY schools comes directly from the tax dollars of the people of the State and City of New York. Every year, we legislators are asked for additional funding to support programs and initiatives at these schools and we fight hard to secure those funds. Every one of those dollars given to CUNY, and Brooklyn College, means one less dollar going to some other worthy purpose. We do not believe this program is what the taxpayers of our City — many of who would feel targeted and demonized by this program — want their tax money to be spent on.

We believe in the principle of academic freedom. However, we also believe in the principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong.

The "academic freedom" the council members advocate, of course, is not academic freedom at all; no academic discourse that is only allowed to be held at the pleasure of elected officials can claim to be anywhere close to free. Such threats coming from government officials hearken back to darker days in the academy's history when government threats and prosecutions of those holding the "wrong" views were all too common.

FIRE has criticized those who have used their bully pulpit in this manner before. This includes the Oklahoma state legislature, which investigated the University of Oklahoma over its decision to invite scholar Richard Dawkins to speak on the campus; Maryland State Senator Andrew Harris, who attempted to coerce Maryland's public universities into adopting policies regulating pornography on campus; and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who pursued a troubling, and well-publicized, investigation into the climate science research of a former University of Virginia professor.

Using one's elected position to threaten the well-being of colleges—financially or otherwise—is the antithesis of the notion of the university as "peculiarly the 'marketplace of ideas,'" as hailed by the Supreme Court in Healy v. James (1972). We hope New York City's legislators will think better of their misguided threats against Brooklyn College. In the meantime, we continue to monitor the situation, and will update Torch readers accordingly.

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