When I first heard that Linda Sarsour was invited to be the commencement speaker at City University of New York School of Public Health, I was torn.
On the one hand, I find much of what Linda Sarsour says to be reprehensible. Her tweets and speeches have been so anti-Israel and anti-Semitic that I find my blood pressure rising the more I read or hear.
On the other hand, I ask myself: What about the First Amendment? Doesn’t she have the right to speak? Shouldn’t CUNY have the right to invite whomever it wants to speak at its commencement? How could I condemn Berkeley’s decision to cancel Ann Coulter’s speech and then ask CUNY to do the same thing?
However, it is not the same thing. Ann Coulter was not invited by the college to speak at an official college event; she was invited by Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation. Students had the choice of going or not. Students had the choice of sitting in the room and listening to Coulter’s remarks, or standing outside and peacefully protesting her appearance.
In this instance they don’t have that choice. Linda Sarsour was invited by the administration of CUNY School of Public Health, not a student organization. Being a commencement speaker is not a right protected by our Constitution. It is a privilege—a privilege bestowed upon an individual by an institution. Students attending their graduation are not given the option of which speeches they want to listen to.
One of the things that make this country great is that Linda Sarsour has the right to say whatever she wants. She has the right to say there is no room in the feminist movement for supporters of Israel. She has the right to support the movement to boycott, divest and sanction the Jewish state. She even has the right to call Benjamin Netanyahu a “waste of skin.”
However, CUNY does not have the right to force its students to listen to such hate-speech. Some would argue that these graduates have a choice. But they don’t. If they want to attend their graduation—after working hard for many years to achieve this goal—they must sit and listen to Linda Sarsour.
When I was a student at Queens College, one of the student groups invited Dr. Leonard Jeffries to speak on campus. At the time, Dr. Jeffries was a very polarizing figure in New York City academia. As is the case with Sarsour, I found nothing redeeming about Dr. Jeffries’ hate-filled rhetoric. However, unlike Sarsour, Dr. Jeffries was invited by a student group, not by the institution itself.
I, along with my classmates and professor, stood outside the Student Union and peacefully protested his appearance on campus. We then went inside to hear firsthand Dr. Jeffries’ speech. We felt the need to hear directly from Dr. Jeffries. That was our choice.
The difference here is that the CUNY School of Public Health students are not given the choice. If they want to attend graduation, they have to listen to this hateful speaker.
I would hope that the CUNY administration, as a public institution, would have the integrity to recognize that it made a mistake.