The current discussion about the invitation to Linda Sarsour to speak at the commencement ceremony of the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy draws into sharp focus principles central to a free society and its academic institutions.
The decision to invite Ms. Sarsour was made by the School of Public Health. The commencement speakers are selected at the college level. The School of Public Health made a decision to focus on women leaders for its commencement this year and invited Ms. Sarsour because of her involvement in public health issues in New York City and her position as a leader on women’s issues, including her role as co-chair of the recent Women’s March in Washington. Ms. Sarsour has been recognized by President Obama at the White House as a “Champion of Change” and was recently named one of Time magazine’s 100 leaders and Fortune magazine’s 50 global leaders.
CUNY’s administration, its Board of Trustees and political leaders are being asked to overrule the college and cancel Ms. Sarsour’s speech because critics object to things she has reportedly said or written. While one might disagree with the School of Public Health’s decision to invite Ms. Sarsour to speak at commencement, that difference of opinion provides no basis for action now. Taking action because critics object to the content of speech would conflict with the First Amendment and the principles of academic freedom.
This is not to say that the critics are wrong to call out statements with which they disagree. That also is the essence of the freedom we enjoy in this country and this university. CUNY’s leadership and I personally have been strong and consistent opponents of BDS, a movement Ms. Sarsour reportedly supports. Obviously, it cannot be said that CUNY endorses her view on this matter; we continue to believe BDS is anathema to the values of higher education. But the fact that Ms. Sarsour might hold views that are controversial cannot be the basis for withdrawing an invitation to speak.