On Thursday, two supporters of Palestinian independence spoke at Brooklyn College in New York. The event, co-sponsored by student organizations and Brooklyn College’s department of political science, has attracted an array of criticism from pro-Israel groups, Jewish students and the New York City Council. Many have called sponsoring the event a “tacit endorsement” — something they see as unacceptable. These criticisms and threats are inappropriate; they threaten to stifle debate and therefore hinder the promise of academic freedom.
The speakers represented a group that advocates for boycotts and sanctions against Israel. Brooklyn College has a significant Jewish student population, and thus the scheduled speakers have provoked harsh responses. On Jan. 29, the New York City Council sent a letter to Brooklyn College’s president, Karen Gould. They demanded the event be canceled and threatening to suspend funding to the school. Gould replied with a letter in support of the event and invited student groups to bring groups with differing views to campus.
Brooklyn College has the right to host this event without any threats. Many of the criticisms levied against it are highly exaggerated. For example, Alan Maisel, the New York state assemblyman representing Brooklyn, called this a “potential for a second Holocaust.” This is a gross exaggeration of the speakers’ legitimate views in an academic debate. This incident is similar to one that occurred in 1999, when NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to cut funding to museums because of a controversial exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. New York is setting a precedent in which politicians intervene in public spheres of education and culture. Bloomberg notes that government shouldn’t be “micromanaging the kinds of programs our public universities run.” The city council has no right or responsibility to label any academic opinion it disagrees with as wrong and harmful.
Controversial events are common at universities. For instance, in 2003 the University held a political forum with both an Israeli and Palestinian advocate. In 2011 at Brooklyn College, David Horowitz, a pro-Israel conservative, spoke, but he wasn’t sponsored by any department. Exposing students to new ideas and perhaps challenging them with other perspectives. Politicians shouldn’t reprehend colleges for promoting academic debate.
The controversy over academic freedom at Brooklyn College is highly exaggerated. Many of the criticisms of the speakers are misguided, and the council’s threat to revoke funding is an inappropriate extension of government into higher-level academics. Schools consistently sponsor events with controversial speakers, and fostering academic expression and debate is part of their job. Brooklyn College should be supported for their dedication to academic freedom.