CUNY, Iraq & Free Speech
Counter-Recruitment Students Test The Limits of Free Speech
With at least four City University of New York (CUNY) students killed in Iraq, including one from the College of Staten Island (CSI), students across the university initiated a campaign this past Spring targeting military recruitment across CUNY campuses. The campaign, dubbed “counter-recruitment,” involves the peaceful assembly of students rallying against the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the dissemination of literature to students fluttering around military recruitment tables. And while the counter-recruitment activities of students all appear to fall within the acceptable boundaries of free speech, the CUNY administration appears to have adopted a “no tolerance” policy in regards to the campaign.
On March 9th at City College’s (CCNY) semesterly job fair, approximately twenty students peacefully marched into Shepard Hall, wound their way towards the military recruitment tables and began distributing anti-occupation flyers and chanting anti-war slogans. Despite the fact that no students were prevented from approaching the military recruitment table to enlist for military service or to inquire about the armed forces, CCNY security immediately entered the hall to end the counter-recruitment action. Confronted by CCNY security, the student protestors defended the counter-recruitment action as an exercise of their first amendments rights, but CCNY security disagreed and ejected the students from the job fair. What transpired next is in dispute, but what is not in contention is that three CCNY students were arrested; two, Justino Rodriguez and Nicholas Bergreen, for assault on a CUNY security officer and one, Hadas Their, for obstructing governmental administration.
The following day, without conducting an investigation, or interviewing any of the arrested students or any of the dozens of students, faculty and staff who were at the job fair, CCNY President Gregory Williams issued a statement defending the arrests and the actions taken by CCNY security. The statement reads in part, “In the corridor outside the Hall, [the students] were told once again that they. . . must take their protest outside, where they would be free to continue to express their opinions. . . .The confrontation escalated and several of the demonstrators grabbed and hit the officer. At this point, the three students involved in the attack on the officer were arrested.” Specifically, Williams contends that one student protestor jumped a guard, another protestor grappled a guard to the ground, while a third protestor beat the head and body of another guard.
But the student protestors deny all of Williams’ allegations and contend that it was they who were assaulted by CCNY security. Hadas Their, an Israeli student demonstrator who was arrested after she began taking photos of security brutalizing her fellow student protestors, maintains “20 of us got together to protest at the career fair. Four different branches of the military showed up. We wanted to put out a specific message that they were recruiting for people to fight and die in Iraq, that this wasn’t a job opportunity. We started chanting ‘U.S. out of Iraq’ and ‘Recruiters off campus.’ Very quickly, we were surrounded by CCNY security guards. They shoved us out of the career fair and closed the doors. The police came and we were beaten and arrested.”
The account of events as told by Their and the other two arrested students is corroborated by other student, faculty and staff who were present at the job fair. Marie Nazon, a CCNY counselor said, “The students were chanting peacefully. The situation become aggressive when the [security officers] came in. [They] looked like they were ready for action.” According to Tiffany Paul, one of the student protestors, after security officers ejected protestors from the job fair, they slammed Justino Rodriguez against a wall and pushed Nicholas Bergreen to the floor.
Even CCNY students who were not sympathetic to the counter-recruitment protesters deny President Williams’ allegations. One such student who chose to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the CUNY Administration, told the faculty union newspaper The Clarion, “I’m not an activist, I find activists a little crazy. But after I heard [President Williams] charges, I thought, truth is being turned to its opposite.” According to the anti-counter-recruitment student, “the security guards were so aggressive. . .They were dragging people across the flow. I saw a student who was lying on the floor and the three security guards jumped on his back. They twisted his hands and handcuffed him. . . I also saw a girl taking pictures (Their) with her still camera. At least two security guards grabbed her, twisting her hands, and took the camera away. Another security guard was holding a handcuffed protestor’s head against the wall while. . .speaking on his walkie-talkie. The protester had blood on his face.”
Hospital records corroborate the students’ eyewitness testimony. While only one security guard was treated at a local hospital for “high blood pressure,” student protestor Rodriguez was diagnosed with a left jaw contusion and student Bergreen was diagnosed with a mild concussion.
Further contradicting President Williams statement was Carol Lang, administrative assistant for the CCNY Theater Department. Lang corroborated the account told by protestors of security brutalizing student demonstrators. During the incident, Lang yelled at the security officers to “let her [Their] go” while one of the student demonstrators was being accosted by security. Two days after the arrest of students at the job fair, in a surprising move, CCNY security marched into the CCNY Theater Department offices and arrested Lang for “assaulting an officer with an unknown object”; she was released 36 hours later. Lang, a 54 year old grandmother who stands 4’11’ called the charges “crazy” and contends that she never attacked any security guards. Other faculty and staff support Lang’s claims. CCNY Professor Seth Rosenberg of the CCNY School of Education and Mark Turner, Director of the CCNY Artino Laboratory for Computational Mathematics, both eyewitnesses to the counter-recruitment action claim that Lang never attacked anyone. Lang believes her arrest was punishment for defending the student’s right to free speech and for disagreeing with President Williams account of events. “This was a way of not only punishing me [for contradicting President Williams’ statement] but also a way of chilling future dissent at City College,.” argues Lang.
Other professors across CUNY agree. “Something about this doesn’t make sense to me. If security was at the demonstration on Wednesday and if they saw her [Lang] assault an officer on Wednesday, why didn’t they arrest her on the spot? Why did they wait until Friday?” asked Professor Ken Sherrill of Hunter College’s Political Science department. Professor Lawrence Rushing of LaGuardia Community College added, “By creating false, trumped up charges against protesters fighting for a fairer university, they are attempting to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation to stamp out completely all semblance of speech which dares to criticize the people in charge.” “It seems that CUNY security is out of control in more ways than one,” added Professor Mary O’Riordan of City Tech.
Despite the courts releasing all three student protestors on their own recognizance, and without setting up a hearing to hear the student protestors account of events, President Williams banned all three students from campus citing them as a “danger” to their fellow students, faculty and staff. In addition, Carol Lang was suspended without pay from her duties in the Theater department.
Students, faculty and staff stunned by the actions of President Williams, sprung into action to pressure Williams to drop all criminal charges against the student and staff and to lift the suspensions. First, on March 17th, the CCNY Faculty Senate passed a motion resolving “That the three students and staff who have been suspended as a result of the yet to be clarified encounter with the police on the CCNY campus be reinstated to their proper place in the academic community, pending an open and thorough investigation of the incident.”
The following day, over 200 students, faculty and staff rallied at CCNY demonstrating against the actions taken by President Williams. Among the protestors was Donna Lieberman from the New York Civil Liberties Union, who stated, “. . .the university is acting not as a tool of learning, but of government repression.” In punishing the students and staff before their disciplinary hearings, “CCNY is making a mockery of due process,” she said. Organizers also began collecting signatures for a petition that among other things, demands Williams “defends the CCNY students and staff, drop all disciplinary proceedings against those involved in the protest, and launch an investigation into the actions of campus security.” Among those who signed the petition were famed author Howard Zinn; former U.S. Attorney General, Ramsey Clark; noted author, Tariq Ali; NYC Councilman, Charles Baron; and CSI Professors Ashley Dawson of the English department and Saadia Toor or the Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work department. Also signing the petition was Jeffrey Fogel of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who exclaimed, “If the demonstration was an annoyance, [CUNY] should be able to tolerate it, the students’ exercising their first amendment rights should take precedence.”
Apparently succumbing to pressure, President Williams lifted the suspensions for the students and staff on April 11. Lang went back on payroll (after losing three weeks of income) and the students were able to return to their classes. Subsequently, President Williams dropped all administrative charges against the students. The District Attorney who would have prosecuted criminal charges against the students and staff declined to prosecute and instead granted an “adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.” If the students and staff avoid getting arrested for the following six months, all charged will be dismissed and their records will be sealed; the process is not an admission of guilt. .
Surprisingly, as of press time Carol Lang was suspended again without pay at a June 2nd hearing at CCNY. Third Rail will continue to follow this story and report any additional news in future issues.
CSI Professor Sandi Cooper, a graduate of CCNY,
writes CCNY President Williams regarding free speech.
March 14, 2005
Dear President Williams:
As a graduate of the College (‘57, summa), a faculty member in CUNY since
1967 and former chair of the University Faculty Senate, I have some historical familiarity with the issue of curtailing free speech on campus.
Beyond the material displayed in the current exhibition mounted at the Graduate School about City College’s parlous relationship with free speech, I recall the willingness of the College officials during the 1950’s to allow FBI agents to prowl through student records, ferreting out “commies” - defined as students belonging to certain clubs; the arrest of an English professor for “ignoring” a legislative summons (which he never received) and the general acceptance by students and faculty alike, that they could not aspire to posts in the State department and Federal government, no matter how “anti-communist” the credentials of the administration were.
It was shameful. It took many years to live that down - mainly by historical amnesia.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, confrontations between students and police over college as well as national issues spread and in the 1990’s, the creation of “peace” officers altered the older system whereby private security guards under the control of presidents and campus regulations functioned, reasonably accurately. But even with the Reynolds “peace” officers, the central administration required certain limitations.
It seems to me that the recent events at City College have violated all those limitations. Further it seems to me that before someone is found “guilty” and locked up in prison, it behooves a mature educational institution to conduct an inquiry into fact and not believe the first presumably damaged claimant who gains the administration’s ear.
As an alumna who has contributed to the Association, I intend not to send a single penny this year and plan to share this letter widely with others in the hope that they will also withhold until a full investigation is conducted by neutral outsiders AND until the right to free speech is protected. There was too much silence in the past --which meant complicity.
Sandi E Cooper
class of ‘57