The DSC Executive Committee is pleased to learn, according to a revised schedule, that the Board of Trustees postponed a vote on the proposed policy on “Freedom of Expression and Expressive Conduct.” In spite of the calculated move by the CUNY administration to minimize opposition by bringing up the proposed policy for a vote during the summer recess, members of the CUNY community organized and made their voices heard in a very short time span. CUNY students, faculty and staff have once more demonstrated that they refuse to be sidelined when a policy with such widespread implications is considered; an online petition gathered more than 500 signatures in less than two weeks, and numerous CUNY community members testified against the policy at the Board’s public hearing on June 20th. Kudos to the people who make CUNY an engaging and inspiring environment to work in.
In a note in the revised schedule for the Board’s meeting, the Board acknowledges that “It was clear from testimony at the public hearing on June 20, 2016, and other communications that there are questions and concerns about the proposed policy. The Chairperson and the Chancellor have determined that there should be additional consultation and discussion.” We are in agreement, and recommend the following open democratic procedures for drafting and considering any proposed policies:
- Invite faculty, students and staff from across the CUNY community to participate in drafting the policy.
- Record and post minutes (noting the number of faculty, students, and staff represented on the committee) on a publicly accessible website throughout the drafting process.
- Require representatives from faculty and student governing bodies to report back on the drafting process to their respective governing bodies.
- Send the draft to democratic governing bodies at each CUNY college for comment and feedback, well in advance of sending it to the Board of Trustees’ committees.
- Hold town halls about the proposed policy at various CUNY colleges well in advance of sending it to the Board of Trustees’ committees.
- Post the proposed policy on a website for public comment for a substantial period of time in advance of sending it to the Board of Trustees’ committees.
- Send the proposed policy to be voted on by Board of Trustees’ committees with faculty and student representatives before moving it up to a vote by the Board itself.
Despite the postponement, the DSC Executive Committee continues to advocate against this and any policy which would rein in free speech and action rather than encourage it. The DSC Executive Committee stands opposed to this policy not only because of the way in which it was brought to a vote, but also because of its intent. As Senior Vice Chancellor Frederick Schaffer recently made clear, this policy was considered in light of “Black Lives Matter and debate over Israel-Palestine.” An earlier manifestation of this proposed policy in 2013 came at the heels of Occupy Wall Street, student protests at City College due to the closing of the Morales-Shakur student center, and critique of CUNY administration’s complicity in the policing and spying on Muslim students by the NYPD. It seems that there is a pattern of fear of black and brown CUNY students critiquing, and expressing their dissent with, CUNY’s undemocratic and largely white power structure. To give an oft-cited historical example, scholars have noted that it is no coincidence that tuition became instituted at CUNY (1976) shortly following the establishment of open admissions (1969), a struggle fought for and won by Black and Puerto Rican activists, students, faculty, staff and allies, in particular at City College. The concept of a publically-funded university meant to serve the poor and working-class people of New York was conceivable, but the concept of a publically-funded university meant to serve the poor and working-class people of color of New York was not.
Instead, the DSC Executive Committee advocates for a policy on freedom of expression that is derived from a commitment to anti-racism at CUNY. Knee-jerk, and sometimes racist, reactions to progressive movements that center Black lives, or fight for tuition reduction for the largely working-class students of color at CUNY, should not be the motive for such a policy. A policy meant to address the principles of freedom of speech and expression on campuses must work against institutional racial and class hierarchies at the same time as it encourages an environment of dissent, critique, and student, staff and faculty control of campus governance.
In the spirit of moving forward productively, the DSC Executive Committee recommends that the following principles be embedded in any policy on freedom of expression that the CUNY administration may consider in the future:
- It should guarantee freedom of expression and encourage such expression, without restrictions on time, manner, or place, as part of the value of a public education, citizenship, and political engagement;
- It should not police methods of peaceful protest in any way, shape, or form;
- It should denounce any and all efforts by outside forces, including the State, that attack CUNY community members’ freedom of speech, right to assembly, and right to protest peacefully using any methods at their disposal;
- It should acknowledge the history of racial and class oppression as a structuring force at CUNY, and encourage any expression that critiques that oppression and its related consequences;
- It should create anti-racist and anti-classist infrastructure at the CUNY-wide level.