CUNY Law School Cancels Its Student Commencement Speech

For the past two years, commencement speakers at the City University of New York School of Law have made support for Palestinians and opposition to Israel a focus of their speeches.

The backlash was intense.

So this year, well before other campuses across the United States faced upheaval over pro-Palestinian student demonstrations, the CUNY law school administration took a new tack. In September, before the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, the school announced that there would be no student speaker at all at this year’s commencement ceremony.

The choice is now drawing its own backlash and has brought more controversy to the event.

This spring, several students at the school sued university officials, saying that the school was suppressing speech and infringing on their First Amendment rights by not allowing a student-elected speaker to give an address. Two guests who had been scheduled to speak — Deborah N. Archer, a civil rights lawyer and president of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Muhammad U. Faridi, a litigator — recently withdrew from the event.

The ceremony will now have no outside speakers and no keynote address, the law school said.

The school also announced in April that it would host its May 23 ceremony off-campus, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, in a departure from the ceremonies of the past two years, which have been held at CUNY facilities. The Apollo requires guests to have tickets and has a smaller capacity than the school’s previous venues, the law school said.

In an email to CUNY students announcing her decision to withdraw, Ms. Archer said she felt compelled to decline “under the circumstances.”

“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,” Ms. Archer wrote.

The fervor over CUNY’s graduation comes as many colleges have in recent weeks adjusted — or altogether canceled — their commencement ceremonies after weeks of student protests.

But the New York City public law school, which is the most diverse in the country and has a reputation for fostering lawyers who go on to work in the interest of the common good, has long been a hot spot for pro-Palestinian activism.

The lawsuit represents the culmination of a simmering conflict over politics related to Israel that has been building for almost two years.

The complaint, which was filed in Manhattan federal court at the end of last month, was brought by eight plaintiffs, all of whom are current law students or soon-to-be graduates of CUNY. It claims that the school engaged in viewpoint discrimination and retaliation when it decided to bar students from nominating a peer to speak at graduation and from recording or livestreaming the event, breaking with tradition.

These decisions were made in response to the commencement speeches of the two prior speakers and reflect a “repression of speech related to Palestine,” the complaint says.

“I think for these plaintiffs and their peers, to speak out about the injustices, the catastrophic state violence that Palestinians in Gaza are facing is critical,” said Golnaz Fakhimi, the legal director of Muslim Advocates, the main organization representing the students.

Each year, the graduating law students select a member of their class to give a speech, a custom since at least 2016, according to the lawsuit. In 2022, they selected a Palestinian student, who is not named in the lawsuit. Her speech included statements criticizing Israel and drew the ire of some public officials, who called it antisemitic. Around that time, one City Council member withdrew a small amount of funding to the law school over the faculty’s support for a boycott movement against Israel, the lawsuit notes.

Last spring, students chose Fatima Mousa Mohammed, a Yemeni immigrant and an activist devoted to the Palestinian cause, as their speaker. Ms. Mohammed’s speech, like the one before it, denounced “Israeli settler colonialism,” but it ignited a firestorm of criticism, making Ms. Mohammed the subject of months of international tabloid coverage.

Lawmakers criticized Ms. Mohammed’s positions, and at least one advocacy group called for Sudha Setty, the law school’s dean, to resign. A couple of weeks after the speech, Mayor Eric Adams, who had spoken at the graduation, condemned the speech’s “divisiveness.” Later, the CUNY chancellor and board of trustees disavowed the speech in a statement, calling it “hate speech.”

In September, Ms. Setty said that the 2024 graduation would not include a student speaker, according to notes taken by a student government representative who attended a faculty meeting. In April, students learned that the ceremony would not be livestreamed.

The school has held commencement ceremonies that did not include student-selected speakers in the past, the law school said.

In a statement, Ms. Setty said that the law school was “working hard” to hold a commencement that both honors its students’ achievements and “meets the needs of our entire community.”

“The public controversy surrounding graduations and the protests we are seeing across the country should not overshadow their amazing accomplishments — the world needs more lawyers who serve the public interest — and we are looking forward to giving them a joyful send-off,” the statement said.

The plaintiffs have said that the school made the changes to its usual commencement plan because of the content of the previous two speeches, and their claim of a First Amendment violation hinges on this point. But one legal expert said that such an argument was shaky and unlikely to succeed.

“I don’t think it’s a strong free speech claim, legally,” said Burt Neuborne, a professor of civil liberties and the founding legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice. “I think that students don’t have the right to choose their commencement speakers any more than they have the right to choose their teachers or other participants in the academic life.”

Since the fall, some law students have asked administrators to reconsider the removal of the speaking slot, including in public letters, but those attempts have been unsuccessful. The plaintiffs also say that the pro-Palestinian activism on campus in the months since Oct. 7 has caused administrators to dig in their heels further.

“I really think this lawsuit is an opportunity for CUNY to stand on the right side of history,” Nusayba Hammad, a third-year Palestinian American student at CUNY and one of the plaintiffs, said. “So far, they have just chosen the wrong side over and over again.”

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