On April 24, members of the CUNY chapter of the National Association of Scholars sent a letter to CUNY Chancellor, Chancellor James Milliken, and copies to CUNY Board of Trustees Chairperson William Thompson, Vice Chairperson Barry F. Schwartz, and Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs Loretta Martinez. A copy of that letter is posted below.
Campus protests aimed at disrupting talks by invited speakers have become too numerous for most of us to keep track. But we ought not to let the enemies of academic freedom establish a new normal in which they shout down, heckle, or seize the stage from a speaker. It is important both to take public note of these assaults on intellectual freedom and to call to account the academic administrators who permit the disruptions to unfold, ignore their institutions’ own policies, and sometimes condone the disruptions after the fact.
NAS has been tracking many of these disruptions. Among these was March 29 protest aimed at disrupting the invited speech of Josh Blackman at City University of New York (CUNY). Blackman, a professor of law at South Texas College of Law in Houston was invited to speak at CUNY by the local chapter of the Federalist Society. His topic was the importance of free speech on campus. He was prevented from giving his intended talk by a group of protesters. On April 12, professor Blackman wrote about the disruption on his blog, where he included a video of the event. On April 16, Scott Jaschik writing on Inside Higher Ed, “Shouting Down Talk on Campus Free Speech,” which included some of the details:
The students protesting the event called Blackman a white supremacist and racist, and some shouted, "F*** the law." Many said that CUNY should not have permitted Blackman to speak, given the law school's mission, which focuses on the public interest, public service and diversifying the legal profession.
The letter below refers to the protest aimed at preventing Professor Blackman’s speech and the attempt of CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek to absolve the protesters of any violation of CUNY policy.
Chancellor James Milliken
City University of New York
205 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10017
April 24, 2018
Dear Chancellor Milliken,
We write as members of the CUNY Association of Scholars to ask that you clarify CUNY policy regarding disruption of events in which a student or faculty organization invites an outside speaker. Our request comes in the aftermath of an example of speech suppression that took place at our university and, lamentably, with its apparent approval.
We are confident that you know of the (now notorious) event that concerns us – a lecture at the CUNY Law School in which Josh Blackman was shouted down by a group of heckling students. A CUNY Law student organization, the Federalist Society, had invited Blackman to give a public talk at the school—with a topic, ironically, focused on free speech.
While such disruptions on college campuses have become increasingly common, we believe this one merits special attention because—unlike administrators in most recent cases—the law school’s dean appears to condone the behavior of the hecklers.
As described in Inside Higher Ed (4/16/18), Dean Mary Lu Bilek characterized the protest as reasonable because it ended early. She stated that, “For the first eight minutes of the 70-minute event, the protesting students voiced their disagreements. The speaker engaged with them. The protesting students then filed out of the room, and the event proceeded to its conclusion without incident.” She added, “This non-violent, limited protest was a reasonable exercise of protected free speech, and it did not violate any university policy.”
Dean Bilek cited no provision of the student handbook to sustain her claim that “limited” disruptions of an invited speaker’s talk do not violate CUNY policy. The handbook, we should note, implies the reverse, holding that “a member of the academic community shall not intentionally obstruct and/or forcibly prevent others from the exercise of their rights. Nor shall she/he interfere with the institution’s educational process or facilities, or the rights of those who wish to avail themselves of any of the institution's instructional, personal, administrative, recreational, and community services."
It is noteworthy that, according to Blackman, the disruptors were intimidating enough to discourage some students from entering the room while the protesters were there. He was, he has stated, “not able to give the presentation I wanted—both in terms of duration and content—because of the hecklers. The Dean is simply incorrect when said the protest was only ‘limited.’” (Blackman had planned a 45-minute address, to be followed by a question-and-answer session, thereby planning to allow time for CUNY Law students, including his critics, to ask him questions about his arguments.) Photographs of the event show the disruptors not only preventing him from delivering a portion of his planned remarks but also obstructing the audience’s view of his PowerPoint presentation.
According to Blackman, Dean Bilek did not contact him before issuing her statement, even though her remarks in part described his reaction to the disruption. Members of one of the law student groups that organized the disruption recently clarified their intent: “When we say ‘fuck the law,’ we mean fuck the law.”
Inconsistent statements from CUNY administrators and spokespersons about the policy affecting disruptions at CUNY have only heightened our concern. The night of the incident, according to Blackman, an unnamed administrator cautioned the disruptors that while they had the right to protest, “you may not keep anyone from speaking.” Only after this intervention did the hecklers leave the room.
After the disruption attracted media attention, a CUNY spokesperson offered a more equivocal definition of the school’s policy, to UCLA Law professor Eugene Volokh, founder of the blog Volokh Conspiracy: “CUNY School of Law fully supports the rights to free speech and open discourse as well as the right to protest.” The spokesperson did not respond to Volokh’s question regarding the institution’s policy “about people protesting in a way that interrupts someone else's speech.”
Then, four days later, came Dean Bilek’s statement. Simply put, the CUNY policy that she articulated permits its students to use tactics that silence speakers and frighten potential audience members — as long as the disruption occurs in doses of an unspecified limited length.
The ripple effect of this ill-conceived policy on campus discourse is likely substantial. How many speakers would want to deliver lectures on campuses where intimidating disruptions are deemed acceptable by the administration? Further, what message does that policy send to students and faculty members on those campuses who might wish to express unpopular views? By labeling as reasonable the shouting down of speakers, CUNY will surely undermine civil discourse on its campuses.
For these reasons, we hope that you will reaffirm CUNY’s support for the rights of invited speakers to speak and the rights of students in their audience to hear their remarks, and to abandon a policy that chills speech on its campuses. In the alternative, if Dean Bilek did accurately state CUNY policy regarding disruptions, we urge you to make this new policy clear, so that any invited speaker to a CUNY event will know that he or she can be subject to disruption from student critics as a matter of policy.
History, Lehman College and the Graduate Center
History, Bronx Community College and the Graduate Center
History, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center
Geology, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center