November 3, 2013

In a move likely to sharply curtail free speech and free assembly, administrators at The City University of New York (CUNY) are developing what they call a “Policy on Expressive Activity” to set severe limitations on who, how and where free speech and assembly rights can be exercised.

The proposed “Policy on Expressive Activity” bans demonstrations from CUNY buildings and forces demonstrators into what amounts to ‘protest ghettos’ or ‘free speech zones’ conveniently called “designated areas” which are likely to be located in such "high visibility" areas as around the corner from the basement vending machine.

The proposed policy requires 24 hours advance notice of demonstrations even if turnout is expected to be small; limits the distribution of “materials” on campus to “designated areas”; and gives college presidents the power to determine if a demonstration is “disruptive”—and to call the police onto campus to stop it.

CUNY is a public university and as such, these policies, if implemented, are not only an assault on the concept of university education, but a restriction on the use of public space for assembly, which I am quite positive is supposed to be protected under the first amendment. CUNY’s proposed policy goes on to state, “Freedom of expression and assembly, are subject to the need to maintain safety and order.” Every university has the responsibility to maintain a safe environment for its students and employees. But, as Barbara Bowen, President of the PSC/CUNY union of teachers and faculty, states in her memorandum to union members “Safety is not the same as “order”; safety does not require repression.”

CUNY’s proposed restrictions come on the heels of the abrupt and unannounced re-appropriation of a student center at CUNY’s City College, where politically active students once had their offices. The space has been turned into a career center and all student group files from that area were confiscated. (Read about it HERE). CUNY Students have also recently staged protests over what they considered unfair tuition hikes, as well as the university’s hiring of disgraced former General David Petraeus as a visiting professor.

The history behind the City University of New York is important to note. Once known as the “Proletarian Harvard”, CUNY was founded in 1847 as the direct result of disruption and dissent. Several of its colleges have been saved from closing during fiscal crises because of protest and assembly. It is currently one of the largest urban universities in the United States as well as one of the most diverse, and, although still affordable today, used to be tuition free.

Its historic progressive mission was to offer the opportunity for upward mobility to high achieving students who otherwise would not have been able to go to college due to economic constraints or the social constraints of not being well connected or being from a minority ethnic group or having female genitalia. CUNY successfully did just that.

Among its impressive list of alumni who contributed greatly to society is Jonas Salk. Do you like not having Polio? Thank public education. Thank CUNY. Thank dissent.

Students at the City College of New York protest against anti-semitism, 1950s.

As institutions devoted not just to the transmission of knowledge but also to the generation of new ideas, universities are inherently places of exploration, debate, dissent and, sometimes, protest. Many CUNY students are from marginalized groups, have cause for protest, and are directly responsible for strides in progressivism. The preventative marginalization of dissent being considered by the university is a threat to all speech and all progress in social and economic justice and needs to be stopped.

If you think universities have a responsibility to uphold the highest standards for freedom of speech and assembly, please share this information widely and encourage the administration of CUNY to do all they can to preserve the vibrant CUNY community.

Julianna Forlano is a political satirist and host of Absurdity Today on FSTV. She is an adjunct professor at The City University of New York at Brooklyn College.
Twitter: @JuliannaForlano

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