Monday, February 4, 2013

Freedom of Speech at Brooklyn College

February 4, 2013

Dear Fellow Brooklyn College Faculty, Students, and CUNY Community Members,

It is with disappointment that I cannot be on campus to take part in this week’s Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) talk. As a scholar of Ottoman Palestine, and as an activist working for a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I support discussion and dialogue from all camps, and draw a clear line not to support or to give a hand to sides promoting violence. It is certainly the right of the BDS to set their agenda, which promotes reaching their goal through peaceful means, such as sanctions of the Israeli state. 

Attempts by students, faculty, alumni, or other outside factors, to silence opposition to Israeli policy brings me back twenty years when as a student at Haifa University, I received punishment (thirty hours of labor) for exercising my right to free speech (under Israeli law). Despite my punishment, Palestinian students (with Israeli citizenship) were expelled from campus for sometimes more than one semester. Even then we realized that they were punishing the wrong people, as we were promoting peaceful resistance; just two years later the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was shot by a radical right-wing Jewish man.

Now as an assistant professor (on leave) at Brooklyn College, I have learned that there are those trying to silence the BDS talk. This is a shame. During my classes on Israel/Palestine conflict, I encourage all voices, and encourage my students to learn about all sides to the conflict. As we know, there are no easy solutions to the conflict, and if BDS thinks that they offer a genuine way out of this conflict, then more power to them, and let the audience members be the judge of this. Perhaps, more outrageous than trying to silence the voices of the BDS, is silencing Brooklyn College students who invited the speakers, and found departments to support them in organizing their events.

Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity, to express my support of faculty members, who are ensuring that the students’ wishes are heard. I would also like to express my sincere support of the Political Science Department, and its chair, Professor Paisly Currah, who has had to endure a great amount of pressure. Lastly, Brooklyn College should be proud of the fact that their president, Professor Karen Gould, has stood firm in her support for free speech on campus. She has my unwavering support.

I hope others who support freedom of speech on US campuses will spread the word! 


Louis Fishman  


  1. Dear Professor Fishman,

    I think you've been misled. No one (rational) was asking for the event to be cancelled. The issue was with the Political Science department sponsoring it. The sponsorship was purely symbolic, all the funding and organization was done by private groups, and without the department's sponsorship it still would have taken place with no change. Symbolic support like that is tantamount to an endorsement, and supporting one perspective without allowing the other to even have the opportunity to be heard is a spectacular breach of academic integrity and should not be allowed.

    The department has an obligation to properly depict such difficult topics in as balanced a manner as possible with representatives from both sides. Doing otherwise prejudices the student body toward one belief at the expense of the other. It was never about free speech, the event was never going to be silenced. It was about fairness and academic integrity, both of which the Political Science department lack.

  2. Jonathan: Not true. Explicit threats to the college's funding have been made if the event is allowed to go forward by elected officials:


    We have the document. Lewis Fidler, Assistant Majority Leader of the NYC Council, and several other members of the City Council, write in a letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould that if the BDS event is not canceled—or the political science department’s co-sponsorship of it is not withdrawn—the City Council will withdraw its financial support from the College and/or CUNY. The letter is here.

    An excerpt:

    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. So, should this event occur, we must strongly oppose it and ask you to reconsider any official support or sponsorship.

  3. Thank you for providing proof for me, "should this event occur, we must strongly oppose it and ask you to reconsider any official support or sponsorship". In the very letter you're using as proof, they're asking for the sponsorship to be withdrawn. The actual letter demands that the department cease sponsoring the event, the "summary" claims to demand that the event be cancelled with the revocation of sponsorship being an alternative.

    Always use the primary source, and employ a bit of critical reading.

    It's also worth pointing out that they seem to be under the impression that the school was funding this event, which would be incorrect.

  4. As a public institution that is publicly funded, the public should have a right to speak out. I fail to see how as Professor Fishman does, that it is clear that a publicly funded un-elected political science department supporting one side of an argument is a good thing, but responding by opposing said view and threatening to defund the dept. is a bad thing. Politicians giving money to causes their constituents support or not giving money is the essence of democracy and speech being enacted through the taxpayers pocketbooks.

    I have a few hypotheticals for Professor Fishman. If the majority of the taxpayers do not support the poly sci depts. decision should the poly sci department back down?
    If the majority of the voters in fact voted to no longer fund the poly sci department would that be wrong?
    How about if the majority of the student body disagreed with the department?
    Let's say the political science department sponsored Gert Wilders in saying that Islam was not compatible with Western democracy and politicians threatened cutting funding? Do you think that would be an infringement on academic freedom?

    While academic freedom is important, in a taxpayer sponsored school, I think some level of public outcry should be allowed and for that matter encouraged. Is Fidler wrong because he doesn't represent his constituents views or because even if he did he should refrain from voicing his opinion?

    Last why no BDS movement against China, Russia or Egypt?

  5. thanks for all of your comments, the discussion is important.

    1. I was not involved in/or have privy information about the unfolding of events.
    2. It is certainly in the right of the Political Science Department to support student initiatives.
    3. Freedom of Speech, organization, etc on public campuses should not take into consideration, taxpayers, and other groups' considerations
    4. Not all discussions need to be "balanced." There is an argument for this, and against this.
    5. Public outcry, etc. is fine. Threatening academic freedom is not.

    I hope this answered both yours and Jonathon's comments. Alex, thanks for the info!

    1. Thanks for your response Louis.

      I would like to re-ask just one of my questions. Let's say the political science department were to allow a group to bring Geert Wilders onto campus, and the political science department sponsored this point of view. And politicians threatened to cut funds to the department or the university, would you still be against the politicians from doing so on academic freedom grounds?

    2. Let's say Brooklyn College invited Alan Dershowitz or David Horowitz to air their views without providing any balancing speakers. Would you still support politicians threatening to withdraw funding?

    3. Brooklyn College has invited Dershowitz and if the constituents of politicians in NYC thought that what they had to say was odious and threatened to defund them, I would not have a problem with that.

      I have no opinion on a need for balancing of opinions. I think that if a politician believes that his constituents think that a point of view they are paying for speaking is evil, threatening defunding of said view seems reasonable.

      If this were a private university, this would be a different story and threat would be inappropriate.

      What is your take on my Hypo?

  6. Its a good statement. The department chair and the college president need public support. The central issue is academic freedom vs. the state's proclaimed right to control free speech at the college. The threat of withholding funding is clearly coercive and administrators have to take it seriously.

    The boycott and divest movement is an effort to peacefully resolve an international conflict which started with violence and gets maintained by violence. Therefore the status quo is the bigger threat to both Israel and Palestine.

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  8. "It is certainly in the right of the Political Science Department to support student initiatives."

    Prof. Fishman,

    Two points.

    1.What policy do other colleges and universities have about departmental sponsorship of programs that have an overt political agenda, not an academic agenda? My bet is that most academic organizations would not permit what your college is doing. It would be viewed as being an obstacle to the educational mission of the institution. After all, it is reasonable to expect students to take away from the departmental sponsorship that the Brooklyn College Political Science department holds a view on the Arab Israeli dispute so that students will, in order to avoid controversy, adopt for purposes of getting good grades, the sponsored position of the Political Science department. So, whether or not the department has a right to sponsor the event, it is a terrible idea.

    2. Then there is the question of BDS and its agenda. It is not a party looking for justice in the Arab Israeli dispute. It is a party that is involved in promoting Antisemitism, as per its leader's comparison of Israel with Nazi Germany. See an article he has written here. The impact of allowing a group that shows no constraints in its language, stooping low into the gutter, is to create a hostile environment for students.

    So, whether the school has the academic freedom to do what it is doing, this is not wise. The school is acting against its core mission - i.e., to educate students - and creating a hostile environment for students. How on earth, no matter what your views are on the Arab Israeli dispute, support what your college is allowing? Shame on you.

    1. Of course, what you are saying is relative to you and your surroundings. For example, most people on campus what not see this as creating a hostile environment. However, there are questions that also ensure the right of a minority. Nevertheless, I do not see that the BDS is supporting anti-semitism, etc. I did not read the article you have attached, and I myself participated in a talk by Judith Butler who proposed sanctions against Israel (this was in Istanbul). I myself have not really followed the BDS, and even if sympathetic to some of their causes, I have been turned down by their language, which I do not find constructive. Regardless, I think they have the right to speak. Politics, and political expression, is wrapped up in history to the core. It is written by states, etc. Therefore, a group bringing a counter narrative should be welcomed, for the sake of justice. This is my thought in general.

      I hope this has answered question. Thanks for taking the time to share with me your thoughts.



  9. Professor Fishman,

    You continue to claim that academic freedom has been threatened, it has not been. The issue revolves around department support of a biased event, not the biased event itself. The biased event would take place in an identical manner as it is currently scheduled had the department refused to sponsor it. A department should not be biased in what views it represents to the student body. Academic integrity demands it.

    To withhold funding from a department or a school which refuses to adhere to basic principles of academic integrity is entirely justified.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Once again, I understand your point but will have to disagree. I do not see how they are not adhering to academic integrity. In any case, to withhold funding is unacceptable. I suppose half the events on Israel, which are often sponsored by departments, should be cancelled, if you ask students sympathetic to Palestinian cause. This is not an easy topic to approach and I hope that groups with counter narratives will also bring their side to be heard.



    2. Professor Fishman,

      As was readily predicted, here is proof of discrimination at the event, through both the removal of pro-Israel students for no reason and denying entry to pro-Israel students with confirmed RSVPs.

      Still going to stick to the claims of there having been academic integrity or academic freedom?

      If there was no reason to deny funding beforehand, there certainly is now.

  10. "Sponsor" does NOT mean 'endorse' or 'support'. It is simply a means of spreading the word and for the political science department to encourage discussion. The department did not approach the BDS folks; in fact, it's the other way around. Pro-Israel students could have and can still ask for their own event to be sponsored. They have not.

  11. Abe writes: "It is simply a means of spreading the word and for the political science department to encourage discussion."

    Discretion is, as the saying goes, the greater part of valor. Consider that point as you ponder allowing a group like BDS to "spread the word." We are talking about a hate group, one that employs Antisemitic themes to advance its agenda. To note: its founder compares Israel to the Nazis; a position that only Antisemites or idiots - take your choice - adopt.

    The greater part of valor would have been for the Political Science department to consider BDS the way it would consider the KKK, meaning as a hate group for which it serves no educational purpose for students whatsoever other than to expose them to bigots pretending to sound sophisticated. And note: this is not the first time that there have been smooth bigots who make their way to colleges. This occurred in the 1930's, with fascist groups gaining substantial access to Ivy League schools to present their point of view.

    If the school thinks there is a reason to open a discussion about the Arab Israeli dispute, they should do so by inviting a group that addresses the issues, not a group which uses nasty rhetoric and lies to manipulate people. And, they most certainly should not do so with the sponsorship of an academic department of a college, giving students the false suggestion that their teachers are idiots or hate mongers.

    Note: I am not saying that anyone should be banned. What I am saying is that the Political Science department has shown the sort of bad sense to suggest that Brooklyn College's Political Science department must be very mediocre, at best, and is filled with ideologues who do not understand the reason students are in school - the most important reason is to learn something, not to be exposed to propaganda from a hate group.

    1. Go to hell. That's it. Just go to hell. You filthy fascist scum. If you white Europeans can't live in palestine as equals with the indigenous Arabs. Than go back to Europe. There is nothing antisemitic about Palestinians realizing their rights and freedom in their own land.

    2. Such language, jargon is not appreciated here. If was so easy to solve the problem by saying you "white Europeans go back to Europe," when almost 50% are not even originating from Europe. I would agree with you on your last sentence, but unfortunately, by infuriating your readers, few will get that far.