Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Four Thoughts on the CUNY Law Affair

Yes, I've heard about "that" graduation speech at CUNY Law. I'm not interested in parsing it; I have better things to do with my time. But I do want to share four thoughts about some of the broader issues in play and the (expectedly less-than-stellar) metacommentary.

First, CUNY's board of trustees has come out with a statement averring that "Hate speech ... should not be confused with free speech" and declaring that the graduation remarks fall into the latter category. Face palm. In the context of a public university, which CUNY is, "hate speech" most certainly is free speech, and retains all constitutional protections assigned to the latter. It astounds me that we still see statements like this on controversies like this when the constitutional rules are so clear. There is absolutely no cause to argue that the speaker's remarks are anything other than speech protected by the First Amendment, no matter how hateful one does or does not deem them to be.

Second, CUNY Law, probably more than any law school in the country (including Berkeley), is a citadel of the hard left. Its student body and, to a slightly lesser extent, faculty is very much self-selected to fit within this well-to-the-left-of-the-Democratic-Party-median mold. Is that a problem? This raises the classic question of diversity within institutions versus diversity across institutions -- it's okay, or perhaps even valuable, that there exist some law schools that are self-consciously hard left in orientation, so long as it is one option on a larger menu. Maybe CUNY Law is just the Regent University or Liberty University Law School of the left. You want a self-consciously conservative Christian experience, you go to Liberty. You want a self-consciously left-wing activist experience, you go to CUNY. Other schools offer different choices. There is a long and proud tradition of the "liberal" education that tries to draw from as wide a range of views and perspectives as possible; but there's an equally long and proud tradition of an education that is intentionally imbricated within a deep and specific intellectual and ideological framework (a religious college is the most prominent example). At the very least, it is not self-evident that we think the latter sort of initiative is always wrong -- at least so long as the prospective law school applicant has other choices.

Is this actually good? Does it matter that CUNY is a public law school? Does it matter that it's a public law school in a generally liberal city? Does it matter that, even in the context of a generally liberal city, CUNY Law is far off to the left of the mainstream? Open questions, as far as I'm concerned.

Third, CUNY Law's Jewish Law Student Association has strongly come out in defense of the graduate speaker and against the public backlash. This is in accord with the CUNY JLSA's larger orientation on issues like this (anti-Zionist, pro-BDS, and so on), and it seems reasonably clear that it represents the consensus view of Jewish students at CUNY Law (which again, is a very particular and self-selecting bunch). Given this, it is fair to note that there is something very odd about people racing to "protect" Jewish students from "antisemitism" that the students themselves not only don't identify as antisemitic, but actively support. Who exactly is being helped here?

One could answer that by referencing the potential Jewish students who would be interested in a CUNY Law experience but are deterred or forced out because they do find the environment to be unbearable (I am aware of at least some Jewish students leaving CUNY Law, or not applying in the first place, for precisely that reason).* In such a situation, the rump remainder of Jewish students who are perfectly happy with that environment will be all that remains, but the resultant "consensus" is not really properly characterized as innocent. Again, this could be reframed as a diversity-within-versus-across-institutions issue, though: maybe it's good that there is one school where anti-Zionist Jews are the dominant Jewish faction; so long as the Zionist Jewish majority has other options. Or maybe not. I do think the core puzzle of "opposing antisemitism" at a given institution over and against the objection of the Jews who are actually present there is at the very least an oddity that people need to wrestle with.

Fourth, many people are contending that the harshly critical response to the speaker constitutes "Islamophobia." For any individual remark or "criticism", that will of course depend on its content. But insofar as we're talking about, e.g., Rep. Ritchie Torres ("Imagine being so crazed by hatred for Israel as a Jewish State that you make it the subject of your commencement speech at a law school graduation. Anti-Israel derangement syndrome at work.") or Mayor Eric Adams ("I was proud to offer a different message at this year’s CUNY law commencement ceremony — one that celebrates the progress of our city and country, and one that honors those who fight to keep us safe and protect our freedoms.... We cannot allow words of negativity and divisiveness to be the only ones our students hear."), it's really hard to warrant the charge of Islamophobia unless you're willing to endorse a (dare I say it?) IHRA-style understanding of what "discrimination" is.

There's little in the way of evidence that Adams or Torres object to what the speaker said because she's a Muslim (and would have been fine with it if she was Christian). And one can of course already hear the classic retorts, remixed: "Criticism of anti-Israelism is not Islamophobia!" "Don't conflate opposition to Israel with Islam!" Given that, the warrant for the Islamophobia claim, it seems, has to be some version or combination of arguments like (a) taken as a whole, the intensity and vitriol of the blowback are disproportionate to a degree that they can be held to function in practice as a form of anti-Muslim hostility; and/or (b) pro-Palestinian sentiments are sufficiently tied to many Muslims sense of religious identity so as to make attempts at silencing or degrading said views tantamount to silencing an important facet of this speaker's Muslim identity; and/or (c) public "criticism" of this sort is part of a pattern or practice of social conditions which practically speaking operate as policing mechanisms that limit Muslim public participation and license their anti-Muslim harassment and discrimination.

Those arguments may well have purchase. But they're exactly the sorts of arguments which, in the context of IHRA and related debates over antisemitism, are alleged to be "censorial", "conflating", "chilling", and otherwise inappropriate in their alleged failure to distinguish between "criticism of Israel" (whether warranted or not) and "antisemitism." Here, the same failure could be alleged: failing to distinguish between "criticism of anti-Israel" (whether warranted or not) and "Islamophobia". And that alleged "failure" could similarly be met with a rejoinder that this too-pat response overlooks the realities of the situation and the practical impact this sort of speech and conduct has a means of impeding the equal public status and standing of Muslims, just as that rejoinder is leveled in the antisemitism case.

To be clear: this is a classic "everyone is a hypocrite" complaint. The anti-IHRA people, when the topic is Islamophobia, are happy to make claims that in the antisemitism context they'd label "chilling", "silencing", or "conflating". And the pro-IHRA people just as suddenly are unwilling to accept logic like this to the extent that it might require seriously reckoning with the prospect that their own speech or conduct can be labeled Islamophobic. If we understand why this speaker could interpret the backlash as Islamophobic, we should be able to understand how Jewish speakers might interpret certain vitriolically anti-Israel speech as antisemitic, and vice versa. For my part, I've long held that it's entirely possible for "dueling" discrimination charges to both be at least in part justified (see this post, and pages 161-63 of "The Epistemic Dimension of Antisemitism" for discussion), and so -- without commenting on the merits of either charge in this case -- it is fully possible in concept both that the way the speaker spoke was antisemitic AND that the way the broader community responded to the speech was Islamophobic (or that neither claim is sustainable, or that only one is).

* When I was on the job market, I did submit an application to CUNY Law in a year where they were looking to hire a constitutional law professor. I did not receive an interview, and, in retrospect, I think CUNY Law would have been a very uncomfortable place for me given my identity and the research that I engage in.

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