NYC Officials Threaten Funding of College Over Israel Event

In defense of Israel, liberal officials are copying Giuliani's 1999 termination of funding for a museum exhibiting "offensive" art

On Saturday, I wrote about the numerous New York City officials (including multiple members of the US House of Representatives) who have predictably signed onto the Alan-Derwshowitz-led attack on academic freedom at Brooklyn College. This group of Israel advocates and elected officials is demanding that the college's Political Science department rescind its sponsorship of an event featuring two advocates of the BDS movement aimed at stopping Israeli occupation and settlements.

The threat to academic freedom posed by this growing lynch mob is obvious: if universities are permitted to hold only those events which do not offend state officials and "pro-Israel" fanatics such as Alan Dershowitz, then "academic freedom" is illusory. But on Sunday, that threat significantly intensified, as a ranking member of the New York City Council explicitly threatened to cut off funding for the college if his extortionate demands regarding this event are not met. From a letter to BC President Karen Gould, issued by Council Assistant Majority Leader Lew Fidler and signed by nine other members of the City Council (the full letter is embedded here):

"Among this City's diversity - and the student body of Brooklyn College - there are a significant number of people who would, and do, find this event to be offensive. . . .

"A significant portion of the funding for CUNY schools comes directly from the tax dollars of the people of the State and City of New York. Every year, we legislators are asked for additional funding to support programs and initiatives at these schools and we fight hard to secure those funds. Every one of those dollars given to CUNY, and Brooklyn College, means one less dollar going to some other worthy purpose. We do not believe this program is what the taxpayers of our City -- many of who would feel targeted and demonized by this program -- want their tax money to be spent on.

"We believe in the principle of academic freedom. However, we also believe in the principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong."

These officials are expressly stating that no college or university is permitted to hold events that contain views that are "offensive" or which these officials "find to be odious and wrong" without having their funding terminated. How can anyone not be seriously alarmed by this? These threats are infinitely more destructive than any single academic event could ever possibly be.

Few people in New York had trouble understanding this threat when it was posed by a loathed GOP Mayor. Indeed, this current controversy is a replica of the most extreme efforts by official authoritarians to suppress ideas they dislike. In particular, New York City liberals and others vehemently objected when conservative Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to cut off city funding for art museums that exhibited works of art which Giuliani found offensive.

Here is what then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani said back in 1999 when he threatened, as the New York Times put it, "to cut off all city subsidies to the Brooklyn Museum of Art unless it cancels next week's opening of a British art exhibition that features, among other works, a shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, a bust of a man made from his own frozen blood and a portrait of the Virgin Mary stained with a clump of elephant dung":

"You don't have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else's religion. And therefore we will do everything that we can to remove funding for the Brooklyn Museum until the director comes to his senses and realizes that if you are a government-subsidized enterprise, then you can't do things that desecrate the most personal and deeply held views of people in society. I mean, this is an outrageous thing to do."

The modern-day successors to Giuliani are the New York City officials now threatening the funding of Brooklyn College for exactly the same reasons and based on exactly the same rationale. Back then, liberals were furious at the GOP Mayor's bullying tactics, correctly arguing that his threat to terminate funding was a serious threat to basic freedoms; as First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams put it at the time:

"Punishing the Brooklyn Museum by seeking to remove its funding because the Mayor disapproves of what he perceives is the message of its art is at war with the First Amendment. The Mayor has every right to denounce the exhibition. He should understand, however, that the First Amendment limits what he can do to retaliate against art of which he disapproves."

After the Museum refused to withdraw the "offensive" exhibits and Giuliani made good on his threats, a federal judge ultimately ruled that the New York mayor "violated the First Amendment when he cut city financing and began eviction proceedings against the Brooklyn Museum of Art for mounting an exhibition that the mayor deemed offensive and sacrilegious." The judge, Nina Gershon of the US District Court in Brooklyn, wrote in her ruling ordering Giuliani to end his official attacks on the museum [emphasis added]:

"There is no federal constitutional issue more grave than the effort by government officials to censor works of expression and to threaten the vitality of a major cultural institution as punishment for failing to abide by governmental demands for orthodoxy."

The applicability of that rationale to the current controversy is obvious. Regardless of your views of BDS or Israel, the last thing anyone should want is for state officials to be able to dictate what academic events can and cannot be held on campuses. It's odious and threatening for exactly the same reason Giuliani's bullying tactics were. Some academics, such as Scott Lemieux and Kieran Healy have spoken out in defense of BC's academic freedom, but nowhere near as many as should given the threats this campaign poses to their own academic freedom. As is so often the case, when the issue is Israel, many advocates fall strangely mute.

At least back then, Giuliani was honest: he wanted to cut off funds to museums exhibiting art that he personally found offensive to his religion. By contrast, what's so noxious about the campaign aimed at BC is the glaring pretense of it all. As corrupted and dangerous as the stated "principle" is - that colleges should have their public funding terminated if they sponsor events with offensive ideas - this would never be applied consistently. Indeed, it's inconceivable to imagine this level of official mobilization on any issue other than Israel. This is about using the power of the state to suppress criticisms of and activism against the Israeli government in academia - and nothing else.

To see how true that is, just imagine if the BC Political Science department had sponsored an equally one-sided event on the BDS movement, but invited only BDS opponents and hard-core Israel defenders. Does anyone think that even a single one of these cowardly, dishonest political officials would have uttered a peep of protest on the ground that colleges shouldn't sponsor one-sided events concerning controversial issues or which air views that people in the City and the student body find "offensive"? Please. To ask the question is to mock it.

Indeed, as I noted on Saturday, Alan Dershowitz himself - who offends large numbers of people - has spoken without opposition at this very same Brooklyn College at the invitation of the Political Science department and not one of these city officials spoke out against that or threatened the college's funding over it. Beyond that, when a controversy erupted last year at the University of Pennsylvania over a pro-BDS event sponsored by students, that university's Political Science department (which had pointedly refused to sponsor the pro-BDS event) formally sponsored an event for Dershowitz to speak without any opposition, and nobody raised these fabricated, disingenuous concerns over the need to only hold "balanced" events and for academic departments to avoid "controversial" stances. That includes Dershowitz, who claimed to me on Friday that he "would oppose a pro Israel event being sponsored by a department" but - needless to say - never objected, at least not publicly, when the UPenn Political Science department did exactly that by inviting him to speak about Israel without opposition.

Plainly, this entire controversy has only one "principle" and one purpose: to threaten, intimidate and bully professors, school administrators and academic institutions out of any involvement in criticisms of Israel. The claim that this is driven by the belief that colleges should avoid taking positions on controversial issues is a ridiculous joke. Yesterday, the besieged BC College President Gould wrote a letter to the school's Hillel organization about the controversy, and in it, she stated:

"You have asked that I state unequivocally the college's position on the BDS movement, and I have no hesitation in doing so. As president of Brooklyn College, I can assure you that our college does not endorse the BDS movement nor support its call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, nor do I personally."

Do you think a single New York City official or Dershowitz or anyone else will object to her official opposition to BDS on behalf of herself and the college, by claiming that this makes BC students who support BDS feel unwelcome and that university officials shouldn't take sides in controversial political disputes? Of course not, because those "principles" are pure pretext. Nobody believes or cares about the notion that colleges and professors, in general, should avoid controversial issues or refrain from sponsoring one-sided academic events (which they do constantly: here's an article on a speech I gave last year at UPenn, speaking alone, expressing many controversial views, at an event formally sponsored by the school's Religious Studies Department; here's an article where I did the same at an event sponsored by the University of Missouri Law School last year). As Political Science Professor Scott Lemieux put it, this campaign poses "threats to academic freedom, based on 'principles' nobody believes."

This is about only one controversial issue (Israel) and about suppressing only one side of that issue (criticisms of and activism against Israeli occupation and settlements). Just as it is extraordinary that a nominated Defense Secretary in the US has to take repeated vows of fealty to Israel and spend most of his confirmation hearing discussing not the US but that foreign country, it is truly extraordinary to watch "liberal" officials in the largest city in the US expressly threaten the funding of a college for the crime of holding an event that is critical of Israel (MSNBC's Chris Hayes, who admires - and has previously had on his show - several of the New York members of Congress who have joined this Dershowitz-led campaign, yesterday lambasted their conduct aimed at BC as "outrageous and genuinely chilling").

BC students and groups are (and should be) free to host as many anti-BDS events as they want and invite all the speakers in the world who support Israeli occupations and settlement expansions, despite how uncomfortable that might make Palestinian and Muslim students (and the BC PoliSci Department has made clear they would likely sponsor such events if asked). That's what free speech and academic freedom are about: the right to freely air and advocate for any and all viewpoints, even ones that "offend" people. Few things threaten those critical values more than elected officials threatening to punish colleges for hosting such events. But that's exactly what is taking place right now in New York.

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