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CUNY Professors Demand Clarity on Speech Policies After Students Derail Guest Lecturer’s Event

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Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press

Four professors at the City University of New York are requesting clarity from administrators on the school’s free speech policies after a group of CUNY law students derailed a guest lecture at the end of March.

Four professors — Martin Burke, David Gordon, K.C. Johnson, and David Seidermann — published a letter asking the CUNY administration to clarify the school’s free policies after CUNY law students disrupted a March 29 event featuring South Texas College of Law Professor Josh Blackman. The event sparked the interest of the protesters due to Blackman’s stance on DACA, a concern that Blackman quickly quelled when he explained that although supported the aims of DACA, he found it unconstitutional.

“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,” the professors wrote.

The professors are referring to an article published in Inside Higher Ed in which CUNY Dean Mary Lu Bilek said that the protest efforts were acceptable.

“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,” Bilek said. She continued, “This non-violent, limited protest was a reasonable exercise of protected free speech, and it did not violate any university policy.”

But the professors suggest otherwise. The student protesters shouted at Blackman from the moment he stepped into the classroom. He was initially unable to give his prepared lecture because he was essentially forced to field questions from shouting protesters. Eventually, Blackman began his prepared remarks, but only because the student protesters left the lecture venue so that they could demand an administrator explain why the event was allowed to take place at all. Because of this, the professors view Bilek’s dismissal of the protest effort as a cause for concern.

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.”

Blackman himself has stated that he was “not able to give the presentation [he] wanted — both in terms of duration and content — because of the hecklers. The Dean is simply incorrect when said the protest was only ‘limited.’”

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