New York Senate passes bill to restrict ‘hate speech’ at universities

NEW YORK — The New York Senate passed a bill last month that would ban funding for student groups which encourage hate speech.

Co-sponsored by Sen. Jack Martins, R-Nassau County, and Sen. Todd Kaminsky, D-Long Beach, SB S8017 prohibits funding for a campus organization that “directly or indirectly promotes, encourages, or permits discrimination, intolerance, hate speech or boycotts against a person or group based on race, class, gender, nationality, ethnic origin or religion.” 

The 2015 legislative session ended June 17 without the bill making it to a vote in the House.

Kaminsky spoke about the bill to the senate June 15 and said taxpayers should not have to support student groups that encourage the boycott of American allies, specifically Israel.

“Throughout our college campuses, something toxic, quite cancerous is happening where we have students coming into college as one person and leaving with anti-Israel and, frankly, anti-Semitic views,” Kaminsky said. “It’s gotten to a point where students are intimidated and people are using what they consider on its face to be a political movement as a way to hold anti-Semitic views and intimidate other students.”

Other public officials have called for an end to anti-Semitism as well. In early June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered state agencies under his control to stop doing business with groups that support the boycott movement against Israel. The state legislature threatened to cut funding for The City University of New York system in March and put increased pressure on CUNY to create a plan to respond to anti-Semitism on campus.

“It’s time we stand up for students so they can hold their views and we can have legitimate discussions on issues, but when it comes to anti-Semitism, when it comes to intimidation, we must take a stand,” Kaminsky said.

Kaminsky declined to comment for this story.

Martins, who could not be reached for comment, cited incidents of support for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel and “hate speech” targeting Jewish students as recent examples of anti-Semitic behavior in a statement on his website.

“We should not give one single cent of public funds to student groups that attempt to harass, intimidate and abuse students of any race or religion,” Martins said. “People are entitled to free speech, but they are not automatically entitled to receive government funding to support their message.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard cases related to funding and students free speech rights on campus. In Rosenberger v. Rector, the Court ruled that denying funding for a Christian publication amounted to viewpoint discrimination.

In a later case, Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, the Court declared the First Amendment allows universities to charge students an activity fee to fund an extracurricular program “if the program is viewpoint neutral.”

In a Washington Post opinion piece, Eugene Volokh, a professor of free speech law at UCLA, wrote that the bill would be a clear violation of the First Amendment.

“…anti-Israel viewpoints are fully protected by the First Amendment, as are anti-Semitic viewpoints,” Volokh wrote.

He argues the legislation would allow universities to participate in viewpoint discrimination and points out the bill doesn’t define “hate speech,” leaving the interpretation of what is hateful up to college administrators.

John Wallach, a political science professor at Hunter College, said he opposes the legislation.

“(The bill is) too vague, too open to interpretation to people who might have particular political interests,” Wallach said. “Students shouldn’t have rights curtailed more than anyone else.”

He said he also spoke out against a recent freedom of expression proposal that would regulate speech at CUNY. The policy originally established what opponents called “free speech zones” and restricted demonstrations on campus, but it was amended after backlash from professors, students and members of the community.

Jay Weiser, associate professor of law at Baruch College, helped draft the policy and wrote a blog post including incidents that occurred on campus. Weiser said he believes the bill is unconstitutional because it advocates for viewpoint discrimination.

“Clearly, you shouldn’t be able to refuse funding to a student organization because it is promoting (boycotts, divestment and sanctions),” Weiser said.

Weiser said he did not believe the bill would have any effect on college campuses if passed because it would be struck down before it became effective.

However, Wallach said he believes the bill would have had a harmful effect on college campuses.

“If you try and block (students) in any way on expressing free speech they’ll try and oppose that,” Wallach said.

CUNY didn’t respond to requests for comment.

SPLC staff writer Kaelynn Knoernschild can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318.

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