CUNY holds hearing on proposed freedom of expression policy

NEW YORK — The City University of New York is considering a freedom of expression policy that establishes restrictions on demonstrations and at one time included what opponents called “free speech zones”.

Administrators that support the proposal denied this, saying it merely establishes reasonable restrictions to speech to accomplish harmless goals such as protecting students’ safety, university property and ensuring education activities continue uninterrupted. However, after facing pushback from the community, the administration revised the policy and it no longer includes those restrictions on demonstrations.

Opponents maintain that policies like this only serve to allow one point of view to be broadcast, silencing dissenting and unpopular opinions because they offend other students. They continue to vocally oppose the policy despite the changes made.

Frederick Schaffer, general counsel and senior vice chancellor for legal affairs for the university, said in a statement in support of the proposal, that “it is appropriate, and consistent with past practice, to establish reasonable restrictions as to the time, place and manner of demonstrations.”

The policy was recommended to the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees for consideration on June 6, but it has since been updated and was available for comment at a public meeting on June 20 before the June 27 vote.

Some of the more restrictive language concerning designating areas for demonstrations was removed, including the segment saying “members of the University community may not demonstrate in places that have not been designated for demonstrations.” Demonstrators will no longer be required to stay in certain zones. However, the policy still restricts demonstrating inside classes, public forums and conferences or in places that will disrupt business operations.

Remaining are restrictions against silencing a speaker or forum because they oppose their viewpoint, making threats that cause a person to fear for their safety, inflicting physical harm and remaining on school property after due notice to leave, among others.

At the June 6 Board of Trustees Executive Committee meeting, Schaffer commented on the extensive length of time taken to develop this policy, due to them heading concerns and recommendations from the faculty and student senates.

“It has been revised weekly if not daily in response to continuing and helpful comments from these two bodies,” Schaffer said.

Multiple students, student groups and the public have brought forth concerns about the policy. The Doctoral Students’ Council sent a letter on June 18 to Schaffer concerning not only the policy itself, but also how the policy was drafted and recommended.

DSC accused the administration of not being transparent in their drafting of the proposal, waiting too long to call public meetings and not asking for input from other CUNY governing bodies. No public discussion was held until the June 6 Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees meeting, which “frankly, is too little, too late,” the DSC said in the letter.

Schaffer also commented at the June 6 meeting that students were “justifiably concerned” at the timing of the proposal, taking place at the end of the year when students are preoccupied with finals.

“It seems inevitable that some of our most important policies do come up in our final meetings,” he said.

The proposed policy was heavily criticized at the public meeting on June 20 for the content and the way in which it was created. Jay Arena, a professor at the College of Staten Island, remarked that the administration was attempting to “ram [the policy] through” in an anti-democratic manner.

Similarly, the chair of the German department at Hunter College, Elke Nicolai, said the administration “should not make a decision at a time when the most members of the affected constituencies of this proposal will not be on campus.”

Nicolai also claimed the many faculty and students view the administrative system as rigged to benefit leaders’ interests.

Concerning the content of the proposal, John Wallach, a professor at Hunter College, believes the policy to either be unnecessary or an abridgment of freedom. The university system already has time, place and manner restrictions that prohibit the disruption of educational and business activities, he says. Therefore, the proposal is redundant or in fact does go farther than the constitutional restrictions, he says.

Evelyn Burg, a professor at LaGuardia Community College, commented at the meeting that the policies are too broad and not clearly defined. To Burg, the proposal seems to be “an attempt not to protect persons, but reputations.”

Schaffer was quoted as saying the idea for the policy was sparked by Black Lives Matter and Israel-Palestine conflict protests and demonstrations in an Inside Higher Ed article.

“We looked and we didn’t have a specific policy on this, and we thought this would be an appropriate time,” he said.

At many schools, these events, particularly Black Lives Matter protests, have begun a dialogue on the role college administrations should play in policing free speech in order to protect students’ physical safety and emotional well-being.

CUNY is also not alone in the debate about establishing free speech zones and expanding policies on expression. Multiple schools across the nation have established them, and many are facing legal challenges or pushback from the student community.

Despite opposition and revisions, the CUNY administration is pressing on with the proposal and will hold a vote on June 27.

SPLC staff writer Evelyn Andrews can be reached by email or (202) 974-6317.

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