Last Thursday, after some controversy, Linda Sarsour, the anti-Israel boycott activist and leader of the January 21 women’s march, addressed students of the City University of New York (CUNY) at their graduation ceremony. As a reason for her to have been disinvited, Sarsour’s critics pointed to her praise for Saudi Arabia’s treatment of its female subjects, her ferocious anti-Zionism, her belief in anti-American conspiracy theories (e.g., that the 2009 “underwear bomber” was a CIA agent), and her public, vulgar sniping at the Dutch-Somali intellectual Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In response, various CUNY faculty members argued that canceling her talk would violate principles of free speech. A.J. Caschetta disagrees:
CUNY’s Chancellor James B. Millikin released an April 26 statement saying that while the views Sarsour “reportedly” has on Israel are “anathema to the values of higher education,” forgoing a commencement speech by Sarsour “would conflict with the First Amendment and the principles of academic freedom.” . . . But [such] arguments conflate and grossly misunderstand free speech and academic freedom. Which speakers a university, even a public one, invites to deliver commencement speeches is not a First Amendment issue. This is not a matter of deciding whether to allow this or that student demonstration or campus guest lecture to take place; it’s a formal endorsement, not of what the speaker says, but of the speaker’s qualifications and ability to inspire an audience.
Of course, Sarsour has a First Amendment right to her anti-Zionism and even to her anti-Semitism. But CUNY does not have a First Amendment obligation to honor her or provide a platform for her.
Academic freedom is another thing entirely. Sarsour is not a CUNY faculty member, or even an academic. Even if she were, her academic freedom would be violated only if Millikin tried to influence the content of her teaching. . . .
The problem, most likely, is that Sarsour received far more faculty support than any conservative who ever made it past the first round of nominations at CUNY. If university administrators want to wilt under pressure and allow this kind of spectacle to take place, they should at least find the courage not to cite the First Amendment and academic freedom as the reasons.