Brooklyn College, City Council, Academic Freedom, and BDS Movement Against Isreal

Brooklyn College has been the center of controversy the last few days, and Greenpoint’s City Council Member Stephen Levin has been involved in at least two sides of the many-sided issue.

On January 29th, Lewis A. Fidler (Assistant Majority Leader of the New York City Council) sent a letter to Brooklyn College President Karen L. Gould, opposing the upcoming February 7th student-sponsored event at Brooklyn College featuring academics Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler – who were to address the idea of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) as a response to the over four-decades long Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The letter stated: “We are asking you to either cancel this event or, if it should proceed, then to remove your school’s official support for it.”

The event, “BDS Movement Against Israel,” is sponsored by the student group Students for Justice in Palestine.

Fidler’s letter was signed by nine City Council Members, including Greenpoint’s own Stephen Levin. (Levin represents District 33, including Greenpoint, Brooklyn Heights, and parts of Williamsburg, Park Slope and Boerum Hill.) The letter stated that, “We do not believe this program is what the taxpayers of our City … want their tax money to be spent on.” As Nation writer Katha Pollitt wrote, “Why do I think their position has more to do with election math than about their fears for the lofty mission of Brooklyn College?”

Fidler’s letter was consecutive to other opposition to the event, led by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. An email exchange/argument between Dershowitz – a Brooklyn College alum who wanted BC to cancel the event – and lawyer/journalist Glenn Greenwald – who insisted on academic freedom, including freedom from censorship by City Council – ensued and can be seen here.

Many, including this writer, contacted Steve Levin’s office to voice our opposition to seeing his signature on Fidler’s letter, which included the sentence “We believe in academic freedom” even as it sought to undermine it. As many residents of District 33 began to voice their dissent to Levin’s position, one Greenpoint resident, Billy Gray (@billymeltdown), tweeted: “I didn’t vote for @StephenLevin33 so he could tell students what events and opinions would be allowed.”

On January 31st a second letter to Brooklyn College signed by Levin, from the office of NY Representative Jerrold Nadler, admits that the BC event must be allowed to go forward “to protect this important First Amendment right and the values of academic freedom,” but insists that an opposing viewpoint be invited as well, while (somehow with no irony) claiming the BC “Political Science Department has actually stifled free speech by preventing honest, open debate. Brooklyn College must stand firmly against this thwarting of academic freedom.” Given the circumstances, this letter would be impossible to satirize.

This second letter is signed by many “progressives” including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Congress Member Nydia Velazquez, and City Council Members Steve Levin and Brad Lander, among many others.

For a list of all Brooklyn College clubs and organizations that the NY City Council (and others) will be monitoring to ensure that there is no “thwarting of academic freedom” check out the BC Student Activities Central site. Then check out every other CUNY website, as well.

On February 4th, BC President Gould released a statement supporting academic freedom and reiterating that the event would go forward as planned, writing that “Brooklyn College does not endorse the views of the speakers visiting our campus next week, just as it has not endorsed those of previous visitors to our campus with opposing views. We do, however, uphold their right to speak, and the rights of our students and faculty to attend, listen, and fully debate.”

In a February 4th letter, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) supported President Gould, describing the “steep rise in attempts … to silence voices that call for an end to the occupation and subjugation of Palestinians” by groups and organizations that “disguise attempts to stifle constitutionally protected speech by mislabeling speech that criticizes Israel policies as hateful and anti-Semitic and, therefore, subject to condemnation and suppression.”

On February 4th City Council Member Letitia James (@TishJames), under community pressure, removed her name from Fidler’s letter, Tweeting that: “While I have serious concerns about this event, I don’t think it would be appropriate for the Council … to use CUNY budget to influence what issues are discussed on campus & what groups are invited. I will remove myself from ltr.”

And late in the day on February 5th, Greenpoint’s own Steve Levin removed his name from the letter as well, Tweeting that: “I have withdrawn my name frm City Council ltr on funding 4 BK College. I maintain my criticism of BDS & impression of BK College endorsement” and “Want 2 make clear that I fully support academic freedom & BK College exercising that freedom & that’s why I removed my name from the ltr.”

While many were pleased with this decision – including The Nation, who posted about Levin’s and James’ removal of their signatures – many maintained their challenge to Levin’s stance on BDS and the “endorsement.” Park Slope resident Jacob Remes (@jacremes) tweeted, “Pleased to see @StephenLevin33 took his name of[f] letter threatening Brooklyn College’s funding. But why’d he sign it to begin with?” While Brooklyn Heights resident Allison Brown (@henrystreetedit) tweeted, “It’s sad that local politicians like @stephenlevin33 think bashing advocates for int’l law & human rights is a good political opp.”

Levin also sent out an email on February 6th, explaining that, “While I disagree with many aspects of the BDS movement and I believe that some of their statements are inflammatory and counter-productive to the goal of a peaceful two-state solution, I believe deeply in the principle of free speech and in the right of academic institutions to allow the open exchange of differing points of view,” and that, “I would in no way base my support for Brooklyn College on such considerations, and I support Brooklyn College and the entire CUNY system, despite my criticism of BDS and the Brooklyn College Political Science department’s co-sponsorship of the forum.”

A third letter to President Gould on February 6th, also signed by Levin, Quinn, Markowitz and many others, opens with “We are writing to follow up on our letter to you of January 31, 2012,” the second letter, not the first. And while it is true that in the January 31st letter – which is what they are “writing to follow up on” – they did not request cancellation of the event, they did request cancellation of the event in the first letter on January 29th, which Levin and James removed their names from.

This third letter, which was sent to President Gould on February 6th, states that “We did not request its [the event’s] cancellation. We did not, and would not, threaten the funding of Brooklyn College.” This despite the first letter’s explicitly stating: “We are asking you to either cancel this event or, if it should proceed, then to remove your school’s official support for it.” And while the threat in the first letter (January 29th) to withhold funding was greased by language a little, it’s still pretty clearly a threat to anyone with an ear to hear: “A significant portion of the funding for CUNY schools comes directly from the tax dollars of the people of the State of New York. … We do not believe this program is what the taxpayers of our City … want their tax money to be spent on.”

On February 6th, Mayor Mike Bloomberg even defended the BC event, saying that though he supported Israel and “couldn’t disagree more violently with BDS,” that “If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.”

It must just really hurt when Bloomberg is more progressive than you.

Hopefully the CC can put aside micro-managing university programming and get back to laudable work like Levin’s and others’ Hurricane Sandy relief.

About Joel

Help write/make Handoutzine.com; Boulevardiers, a novel based on the industrial history of Greenpoint: part of Arts & Culture Committee, Brooklyn For Peace; support the Greenpoint Soup Kitchen! @jlchaffee

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