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Students Sue After CUNY Folds to Backlash Against Muslim Commencement Speakers

CUNY’s law school canceled student commencement speeches after Muslim women used the platform to criticize Israel.

City University of New York (CUNY) students and other supporters of Palestine hold a rally in front of the chancellor's office in midtown Manhattan on November 2, 2023, in New York City.

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In May 2023, months before the October 7 Hamas attacks would spark Israel’s gruesome retaliation against Gaza, Fatima Mousa Mohammed gave a fiery commencement speech at the graduation ceremony for the famously progressive law school at the City University of New York (CUNY). An immigrant from Yemen and the second Muslim woman elected by fellow students to speak at commencement, Mohammed accused Israel of encouraging lynch mobs and “murdering” Palestinian civilians young and old, a statement that may sound less controversial now that Israeli forces have destroyed Gaza and carried out unlawful killings of Palestinians in the West Bank.

Mohammed applauded CUNY’s law school for supporting students who speak out against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, but she also had critiques. With New York Mayor Eric Adams also speaking at the ceremony, she criticized the school’s cooperation with New York City Police and condemned the notorious jail on Rikers Island.

The backlash was swift and largely came from outside of CUNY and its historic law school in Queens. Right-wing tabloids and online Zionist activists accused Mohammed of “hate speech.” Under growing media pressure and public scrutiny, CUNY administrators publicly disavowed her remarks. Mohammed would later write in The Nation that she still stands by every word.

According to Eric Horowitz, a graduating CUNY student and member of the Jewish Law Students Association, fellow students have been targeted for years by conservative pundits and outside agitators for their support of Palestinian rights and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to hold Israel financially accountable for human rights abuses. The law school’s 2022 commencement speaker, a Palestinian woman named Nerdeen Kiswani, had already come under fire from many of the same forces the previous year. Once again, the Jewish Law Students Association publicly stood with Mohammed and her right to free speech after she too came under attack.

In September 2023, just weeks before the war on Gaza would spark a historic protest movement on college campuses, two students attending a faculty meeting reportedly learned that CUNY School of Law administrators had quietly decided to remove student speakers from the 2024 commencement. As graduation approaches, eight CUNY law students — including Horowitz — have teamed with Muslim Advocates, a civil rights group, to file a lawsuit against the school, alleging unlawful discrimination and demanding their First Amendment right to elect a commencement speaker.

On April 30, CUNY’s law school lost two more speakers for upcoming graduation ceremonies. Deborah Archer, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Muhammad Faridi, recipient of the dean’s medal for the class of 2024, announced that they would stand with the students and decline the invitation to speak at commencement, which is just weeks away.

“I cannot, as a leader of the nation’s oldest guardian of free expression, participate in an event in which students believe that their voices are being excluded,” Archer wrote in an email shared on the CUNY Law Dispatches Instagram page.

Truthout caught up with Horowitz on Tuesday to learn more about campus protests in New York City and the lawsuit CUNY law students have filed against their own school, which in 2022 boasted of being the “#1 social justice law school” in the nation. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mike Ludwig: Can you just tell me a little bit about the last two commencement speakers and how that played out? The backlash seems like it was a harbinger of things to come.

Eric Horowitz: That’s definitely the case. So, we had two years ago we had Nerdeen Kiswani, who’s Palestinian, and she does incredible work in mobilizing people around the city. Really, I feel like she is one of the main forces behind the movement here. So, she spoke two years ago at a commencement and, you know, even before that — and especially after that — was really exposed to attacks from the tabloid press and the right wing and was not given any sort of support by administration whatsoever. So that’s really, I think, part of the whole story here. I think it was fall of ’21, the Jewish Law Students Association and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) coauthored a BDS resolution that was passed by the student government, and I think that is also important to mention. She was a part of SJP and then, you know, spoke at the commencement in 2022. And then last year was Fatima Mohammad who spoke at commencement, and that had almost more of an intense level of reaction from the tabloid press.

Right, the New York Post came in and ripped that speech apart?

Yeah, exactly. The Post, the Jerusalem Post, and you know, all the usual suspects really came after her and also just the level of harassment from online trolls and that kind of thing. And CUNY administrators came out with a statement calling it hate speech. The institution is supposedly meant to serve New Yorkers, working New Yorkers, people of color — that’s the majority of the student body at CUNY in general — they really threw her under the bus in a really cowardly way and exposed her to a lot of really dangerous and really racist and awful rhetoric from the press and just from people in general. Also at that commencement, Eric Adams showed up as a surprise speaker. Adams and a bunch of other right-wing politicians here came out and attacked her as well.

It was really indicative of the nexus between the university administration, the political class and the right-wing media here. That was I think a 100 percent the impetus behind their decision. The decision to cancel the commencement speaker was in September, so before the genocide escalated in Gaza. So, it wasn’t even in response to that, it was in response to just the last two speakers really.

I read in the press that the decision was made after hundreds of death threats and complaints and hate mail were directed at the dean, and that reminded me of the University of Southern California, where a Palestinian commencement speaker was recently canceled. It seems to me that trolls and Israel apologists are getting their way with death threats against faculty, Republicans are making political threats, donors are making their threats, and a lot of these people aren’t even affiliated with these universities. Is this what’s students are up against right now?

Absolutely. I think that whatever her justification was, the dean of the law school, she’s new, I’m not exactly remembering when she started, but I know that Fatima’s commencement was her first, the new dean. And you know, I’ve attended a bunch of faculty meetings trying to hear what justification you could possibly offer for this. Faculty had no say, students had no say. She never mentioned anything about receiving threats at a personal level. Her excuse was that having a speaker put an extra burden on staff, just in terms of the workload, and she just sort of nebulously referred to conversations she had with staff. There are no specifics or anything like that about where this decision came from. But I think it’s really indicative of a lack of courage on administration’s part, especially when you know whatever pressure they were getting from Zionist agitators was infinitely less than what Fatima or Nerdeen had to deal with.

Just on that note, when you’re looking at the broader student movement, are you and your fellow students suspicious that some of these reports of antisemitism at protests are actually just right-wing agitators trying to make the protests look bad?

Absolutely. I mean, I was at the Columbia encampment the day after the mass arrests, and then I’ve been up at the City College encampment a bunch of times, and it’s just so far off what this movement stands for and how this movement engages with each other and with the outside world. There are so many Jewish students that are taking part in this, there’s never been an instance that I’ve seen personally of antisemitism at these protests. And yeah, we’ve seen it before with these sorts of “false flag” operations on the part of Zionists. I can’t say for sure that no one associated with the movement hasn’t said things along those lines, but the instances of antisemitism that are receiving press and are super out there, I would imagine have a lot to do with that sort of operation. It’s pretty easy for folks to come in and do whatever they want under false pretense.

The students filed this lawsuit under the First Amendment, correct? Any other laws, like state laws? I also want to talk about Fatima’s speech. It seemed like a pretty intense criticism of Israel from a Palestinian perspective, but did not seem like hate speech to me.

Absolutely not. Under any definition — any legal, moral, you know, just like commonsense definition — nothing she said at all was hate speech. She’s Yemeni, so her criticism of Israel was also tied to criticism of empire in general, both in terms of the U.S.’s actions in the Middle East, and also the way that empire works here in terms of incarceration, and she spoke of Rikers and NYPD, and I feel that that, especially with Mayor Eric Adams in attendance, really contributed a lot to the bad faith attacks that were leveled on her.