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Who Can Speak at Brooklyn College?

February 5, 2013

The president of Brooklyn College on Monday affirmed the right of organizers to hold an event Thursday that will feature proponents of a boycott of Israel. But the president also pledged that the college would soon hold other events with "alternative" views.

The college has come under strong political pressure in the last week over Thursday's event, organized by Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine and co-sponsored by the political science department. The event -- in organizers' words -- will feature a lecture on "the importance of BDS in helping end Israeli apartheid and the illegal occupation of Palestine." BDS refers to the movement to boycott Israel, divest of companies that do business there and promote sanctions against the country.

Critics have said that the co-sponsorship by the political science department constitutes official college endorsement of the event, and a number of New York City Council members have called for cuts in government funding or donations to the college.

Karen L. Gould, president of the college, part of the City University of New York, issued a letter Monday in which she took issue with the idea that the political science department or the college had endorsed any idea by agreeing to the event.

"Our commitment to the principles of academic freedom remains steadfast. Students and faculty, including academic departments, programs, and centers, have the right to invite speakers, engage in discussion, and present ideas to further educational discussion and debate," Gould wrote. "The mere invitation to speak does not indicate an endorsement of any particular point of view, and there is no obligation, as some have suggested, to present multiple perspectives at any one event. In this case, the department's co-sponsorship of the event is an invitation to participate; it does not indicate an endorsement of the speakers' positions. Providing an open forum to discuss important topics, even those many find highly objectionable, is a centuries-old practice on university campuses around the country. Indeed, this spirit of inquiry and critical debate is a hallmark of the American education system." (The letter was sent internally at the college and posted to its Facebook page.)

The letter went on to say that the college would "provide multiple opportunities for discussion about the topics and related subject matter at the heart of this controversy. In addition to Thursday evening's event, at which I encourage those with opposing views to participate in the discussion and ask tough questions, other forums will present alternative perspectives for consideration."

And Gould specifically said that Brooklyn College does not support a boycott of Israel. "I assure you that our college does not endorse the BDS movement nor support its call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel," she wrote. "As the official host of the CUNY center for study abroad in Israel, our college has a proud history of engagement with Israel and Israeli universities. In fact, over the past two years we have renewed our efforts to reconnect with existing institutional partners and to develop new relationships as well for faculty and student exchanges with Israeli institutions. We deeply value our Israeli partners and would not endorse any action that would imperil the State of Israel or its citizens, many of whom are family members and friends of our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and neighbors."

The political science department also issued a statement in which it said that it would welcome the opportunity to sponsor events with other views. "Many have expressed support for our co-sponsorship, but we have also heard concern that the political science department is not willing to co-sponsor speakers or events representing alternative views. In fact, since this controversy broke, no group has contacted the political science chair requesting the department's co-sponsorship of a specific event or actual speaker representing alternative or opposing views," said the statement.

It continued: "We are writing you now to clarify and reaffirm our longstanding department policy on co-sponsorship. We welcome -- indeed encourage -- requests to co-sponsor speakers and events from all student groups, departments, and programs....  Each and every request will be given equal consideration."

Whether these statements will quiet the criticism is unclear (and may be unlikely). Lewis A. Fidler, assistant majority leader for the New York City Council, told The New York Times that he would withhold support for future funds for the college if the event is not called off. In the past, he has helped build support for millions in funds for facilities improvements at the college.

"The issue here is the imprimatur of credibility given to this extremely hateful speech by a department of a public university," he said.

Alan Dershowitz, a Brooklyn College alumnus who is a law professor at Harvard University and an outspoken defender of Israel, questioned whether the college would react the same way to departments sponsoring other kinds of events. And he has equated sponsorship of the event with endorsement of its ideas.

"What would these administrators say if the department of philosophy were to officially endorse the right to life and oppose a woman's right to choose abortion? What if the economics department had officially endorsed Mitt Romney during last year's election? What if the Spanish department had voted to endorse an academic boycott against Cuban or Venezuelan professors? What if the department of religion were to officially condemn homosexuality?" he wrote in The Huffington Post. "I can assure you that both the lyrics and the music would be very different."

He added: "I know that if I were a student at Brooklyn College today, I would not major in political science for fear that my support for Israel and my opposition to BDS might prejudice me in the eyes of professors whose department has endorsed BDS, thus discriminating against my point of view in the marketplace of ideas."

As criticism has mounted, some academics have been speaking out to urge Brooklyn College to refuse calls to cancel the event. A petition signed by more than 1,500 people -- specifying that those endorsing the petition do not necessarily endorse the boycott Israel movement -- says that the pressure to call off the event constitutes a "grave threat to academic freedom."

The petition explanation states: "Academic freedom is a principle of self-determination. It is threatened not just when outside groups and government officials try to cancel an event but when they try to change an event and impose their own standards of acceptability. A school administration shows its commitment to academic freedom not in the easiest cases but in the hardest ones: when it has to stand up to enormous, sometimes coercive pressure, and defend unpopular views with which the administrators might personally disagree. That is why an unflinching and uncompromising defense of the department's right to sponsor the event is necessary. We hope President Gould continues to defend the department against its outside detractors, and we lend our support to that cause."

 

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