Where Does Mayor Bloomberg Stand on Academic Freedom?

by Corey Robin on February 4, 2013

This morning, Karen Gould, the president of Brooklyn College, issued an extraordinarily powerful statement in defense of academic freedom and the right of the political science department to co-sponsor the BDS event. I don’t have a link yet (will post when I do) but this is the critical part of her statement:

First, however, let me be clear: Our commitment to the principles of academic freedom remains steadfast.  Students and faculty, including academic departments, programs, and centers, have the right to invite speakers, engage in discussion, and present ideas to further educational discussion and debate.   The mere invitation to speak does not indicate an endorsement of any particular point of view, and there is no obligation, as some have suggested, to present multiple perspectives at any one event.  In this case, the department’s co-sponsorship of the event is an invitation to participate; it does not indicate an endorsement of the speakers’ positions.  Providing an open forum to discuss important topics, even those many find highly objectionable, is a centuries-old practice on university campuses around the country.  Indeed, this spirit of inquiry and critical debate is a hallmark of the American education system.

At the same time, it is essential that Brooklyn College remain an engaged and civil learning environment where all views may be expressed without fear of intimidation or reprisal.  As I stated last week, we encourage debate, discussion, and more debate.  Students and faculty should explore these and other issues from multiple viewpoints and in a variety of forums so that no single perspective serves as the only basis for consideration.  Contrary to some reports, the Department of Political Science fully agrees and has reaffirmed its longstanding policy to give equal consideration to co-sponsoring speakers who represent any and all points of view.

In my more than twenty years as a graduate student and professor, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a leader of an educational institution take a more principled and courageous stand than this. Under, as we know, the most extraordinary coercion and pressure.

So that’s good. But the fight is not over.  The New York City Council, as you know, has laid down a gauntlet: if this event goes forward, with my department’s co-sponsorship, the Council will withdraw funds from CUNY and Brooklyn College. As Glenn Greenwald points out this morning, this is about as raw an exercise of coercive political power —and simple a violation of academic freedom—as it gets; it is almost exactly comparable to what Rudy Guiliani did when he was mayor and pulled the funding from the Brooklyn Museum merely because some people did not like what it was exhibiting.

So now the battle lines are clear: it’s the City Council (and perhaps the State Legislature and Congress too) against academic freedom, freedom of speech, and CUNY.

Throughout this controversy, there has been one voice that has been conspicuously silent: Mayor Bloomberg. To everyone who is a journalist out there, I ask you to call the Mayor’s office and ask the question: Will he stand with the City Council (and follow the model of his predecessor), threatening the withholding of funds merely because government officials do not like words that are being spoken at Brooklyn College? Or will he stand up to the forces of orthodoxy and insist: an educational institution, particularly one as precious to this city as CUNY, needs to remain a haven for the full exploration of views and opinions, even about—especially about—topics as fraught as the conflicts between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, there is a petition being circulated in support of my department and academic freedom. You should sign it and share it with people.

And if you yourself want to contact the mayor, here’s a link.



KJ 02.04.13 at 6:42 pm

Let the event be held. However, after verifying that my academic freedom credentials remain in good standing (or perhaps because of them), I find it distasteful to defend an academy’s sponsorship of a discussion of, among other things, the boycott of academics.


John Quiggin 02.04.13 at 6:44 pm

This certainly makes the issue more clear-cut than before, and the importance of winning the fight even greater.

Can you give a bit more detail about how the funding for the college works? Can the Council (or council members) act unilaterally, or does the Mayor have final power on this?


John Protevi 02.04.13 at 6:53 pm

@KJ in 1: Quoting Judith Butler, who, after all, was invited to the forum:

“I do support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in a very specific way. I reject some versions and accept others. For me, BDS means that I oppose investments in companies that make military equipment whose sole purpose is to demolish homes. It means as well that I do not speak at Israeli institutions unless they take a strong stand against the occupation. I do not accept any version of BDS that discriminates against individuals on the basis of their national citizenship, and I maintain strong collaborative relationships with many Israeli scholars.”


JW Mason 02.04.13 at 7:02 pm

Sorry, Corey, but just to clarify — it’s not true that “the City Council” is threatening to withhold CUNY funding, is it? It is, rather, 10 (out of 51) members of the Council.

This might sound like a quibble but I think it’s important to be clear here. First, because making it sound like the Council as a whole has taken this position could give people the impression this is an impossible fight — what institution would risk a major loss of funding over a single talk? — which is always demobilizing. (It’s my experience that cynicism and hopelessness are stronger props for the status quo than outright conservatism.) If the administration does start to lose its nerve, an easy cover for them would be that the Council threat leaves them no choice. So it’s important to be clear that isn’t so.

Second, I think exaggerating the importance of the Council letter makes it sound like this is a distinct problem of public higher ed, as opposed to our political culture in general. I had a leftish friend say to me yesterday, “See, this Brooklyn College thing shows how public schools are always going to be vulnerable to political pressure. That’s why it’s a good thing we have elite private universities.” (He teaches at one.) I think this is wrong — that the real threat almost always comes from university administrators — you could make a long list of private schools that have bowed to the same kind of pressure from Dershowitz and co., starting with the railroading of Norman Finkelstein from DePaul. The letter is very bad — and it’s especially disappointing to see Tish James and Bill DeBlasio on it — but I think it’s a mistake to see it as representing a specific exercise of state power, as opposed to more generic public pressure that private as well as public institutions are vulnerable to.

In any case, the most important thing is that it’s courageous of BC not to back down here and it’s really important that those of us in NYC, in the academic world and broader public make it clear we stand with you 100%.


Corey Robin 02.04.13 at 7:03 pm

John #2: I wish I knew! Way above my pay grade, alas.


KJ 02.04.13 at 7:20 pm

@John Protevi #3,

Good for her (even if we disagree). But boycotting universities and academics is an essential part of the BDS campaign and a very soft target. Is there some sort of “loyalty oath” required? I could hardly claim, with a straight face, that I voted for Romney but remain committed to progressive taxation.


Harald Korneliussen 02.04.13 at 7:24 pm

So the hosts of a debate on boycott, divestment and sanctions are themselves threatened with boycott, divestment and sanctions… someone aren’t entirely consistent here.


Ben Alpers 02.04.13 at 7:31 pm

John Protevi @3:

So can we expect Alan Dershowitz to demand, in the name of balance, that they include a speaker who does support discrimination on the basis of national citizenship?


Corey Robin 02.04.13 at 7:37 pm

6: “So the hosts of a debate”: You really want to go down this road? The League of Women Voters holds debates all the time between candidates for office. Are they now to be held responsible for the things those candidates say? So if one candidate says, “Let’s Bomb Iran!” the League of Women Voters should legitimately expect that their offices could be bombed the next day? And shouldn’t complain about it? Get serious.


JW Mason 02.04.13 at 7:51 pm

the hosts of a debate on boycott, divestment and sanctions are themselves threatened with boycott, divestment and sanctions… someone aren’t entirely consistent here.

I dunno. I find it possible to believe both that (a) universities should be subject to sanctions, including loss of funding, because they are part of an apartheid system, and (b) universities should not be subject to sanctions because they permit particular speakers at campus events, with a feeling of perfect consistency.


John Protevi 02.04.13 at 7:53 pm

@KJ at 5: the point is that the students did not invite “BDS”; they invited Butler (and Barghouti). So Butler’s position is really what counts here, not yours.


jdkrown 02.04.13 at 7:55 pm

“But boycotting universities and academics is an essential part of the BDS campaign…”

Clearly not, since Butler is being held up as an advocate of BDS and yet rejects such activities, at least if applied in a blanket way.


KJ 02.04.13 at 8:14 pm

John @10 and jdkrown @ 11,

Barghouti is BDS’s leader and its campaign targets all of Israel including (quoting from its web site) “Israeli cultural and academic institutions”. In fact its sister campaign (also led by Barghouti) is called the “Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel”. I don’t think I’ll join.


Harald Korneliussen 02.04.13 at 8:18 pm

I meant the inconsistency was on part of the people threatening the university. From what I’ve read of earlier cases, their position is that one does not simply boycott academics!


John Protevi 02.04.13 at 8:19 pm

KJ, no one is asking you to do anything. Thank you for sharing, however. What you might do next is to denounce Butler’s deviation from the essential path and denounce the organizers for inviting such a splitter.


JW Mason 02.04.13 at 8:40 pm

I don’t think I’ll join.

How did you feel about the boycott of apartheid South Africa?


Niall McAuley 02.04.13 at 8:50 pm

Butler is not a splitter, she prefers the term “splitite”.


christian_h 02.04.13 at 9:02 pm

What JW says in 10.


jdkrown 02.04.13 at 9:07 pm


You should e-mail Dershowitz to let him know that his demand for balance has been met, then, since Butler (according to you) must be an opponent of BDS


Sebastian H 02.04.13 at 9:23 pm

Bloomberg is an authoritarian style mayor. What he thinks of dissenters is already known.


Pierre Gervais 02.04.13 at 9:27 pm

Hi y’all,

You people are ruining my work flow: first the threat on Erik Loomis, now this…

Anyway, just to let you know: my French University (University Paris 8 Saint-Denis, a few miles north of Paris, originally the experimental University of Vincennes for those who have heard of it, and now one of the poorest in France) had exactly the same issue last year over a scheduled BDS presentation (with no departmental endorsement, incidentally -it was purely a student union affair, but the University had authorized it).

Whereupon our President promptly caved, kicked the presentation off campus, wrote an outrageous, Dershowitz-worthy defense of his decision, and eventually closed down the entire University on the day of the panel, because the participants had said they would show up anyway, and he was afraid of “violence on both sides”.

So, kudos to Pdt. Gould, who showed how being a University President is supposed to work. Her reaction was impeccable; finding such a person in such a position is little short of miraculous these days! I signed the petition, and will circulate it. Does BC hire? Maybe I should move…



rf 02.04.13 at 9:57 pm

“How did you feel about the boycott of apartheid South Africa?”

But it does seem to be an attack on academic freedom. Would you support a boycott on Indian universities on account of their governments policies in Kashmir? Where are you drawing the line


Sebastian H 02.04.13 at 10:12 pm

How do I feel about the academic boycott of South Africa? That it was mostly ineffective and symbolic and that apartheid ended as it did largely over dynamics regarding interactions of the end of the Cold War and some pretty amazing internal leaders in both sides. So I’m sure that an academic boycott of Israel could be JUST as effective!


Mao Cheng Ji 02.04.13 at 10:22 pm

“Where are you drawing the line”

Why, you may be able to discuss just that. At Brooklyn College. With Omar Barghouti.


novakant 02.04.13 at 10:40 pm

So what did all those righteous US/UK/AUS academics do during the Iraq war – boycott themselves?


Sebastian H 02.04.13 at 10:43 pm

Novakant, cultural imperialism means you get to do the boycotting. ;)


Kaveh 02.04.13 at 10:46 pm

The Great White Moderate strikes again. ‘I support greater rights for the Palestinians, but I only support non-violent means of struggle.’ ==> ‘I don’t like non-violent means of struggle that hurt people who aren’t the ones actively committing the crimes.’ ==> ??

novakant @25 Does the name ‘Campus Watch’ ring a bell?


rf 02.04.13 at 11:09 pm

Because only whites can be moderate? Anyway, BDS is also non violent so I’m not sure of your point?


poco 02.04.13 at 11:21 pm

Thanks Corey. petitioned the Mayor (not that I hold out much hope) and have written to President Gould with my thanks and admiration. When Penn students held a BDS event last year (?), the University pointedly refused to sponsor it, and the Poli Sci department invited the Dersh at the same time to give a rebuttal. AFAIK, the Dersh never asked the Poli Sci dept. to sponsor an opposing viewpoint. Faugh, the hypocrisy is stunning.


JW Mason 02.04.13 at 11:55 pm

Kaveh @27 nails it.

Also, there is no “academic boycott.” Anyone using this phrase is just displaying their ignorance. What is proposed is a general boycott of Israeli institutions. Musicians should not perform in Israel. Pension funds and endowments should not invest in Israeli companies. Hummus consumers should not buy Israeli hummus. Academics should not participate in events at or with Israeli universities. And so on.

There are two reasons to oppose such a boycott. One is the obvious one — that Israeli policies toward Palestinians are not morally objectionable, or not the business of the rest of the world. The other is the stereotypically liberal view that one should challenge injustice only through conventional political channels, and not in any way that imposes costs on anyone who is not a direct perpetrator.


JW Mason 02.04.13 at 11:57 pm

Just to be clear, I personally support the BDS campaign. The second paragraph in my comment above was just giving reasons why someone might oppose it hypothetically.


Kaveh 02.05.13 at 12:09 am

rf, I was referring to MLK’s speech on the “Great White Moderate”, meaning people who would say that they supported the struggle for civil rights in principle, but always had some kind of excuse for why they did not support any particular, actual action in the struggle. “Too disruptive”, “This isn’t the right time”, “Isn’t helpful” (the last is one you hear all the time in Israeli-Arab conflict-related stuff in the US–“I understand we need a better dialog on this issue in the US, but talking about the Israel lobby isn’t helpful.”


adam.smith 02.05.13 at 2:05 am

I think BDS is a terrible idea – if you have a movement that often gets confronted with accusations of anti-semitism (often, though not always, wrong) and your idea of an effective campaign is “don’t buy from the Jew(s)” – I think it’s disastrous both symbolically and strategically…
but that’s why you have panel discussions, no? And I can think of no better place than a University to have that discussion, where it’s likely to be in an environment that’s safe and reasonably civil.


shah8 02.05.13 at 2:15 am

derailment in 5, 4, 3, 2,…


LFC 02.05.13 at 2:35 am

Kaveh @32
This is rather off topic, but someone could write — someone no doubt has written — a dissertation on U.S. “diplospeak” — in which the phrase “isn’t helpful” has a prominent place. It’s simultaneously euphemistic and slightly (or more than slightly) patronizing. Also in this category is the phrase “needlessly provocative,” which a State Dept spokesperson used in referring to N Korea’s recent statements surrounding its latest missile launch. One could almost hear the unspoken “tsk tsk.”


rf 02.05.13 at 2:52 am

“Kaveh @27 nails it….”

“Also, there is no “academic boycott. Anyone using this phrase is just displaying their ignorance..”

“There are two reasons to oppose such a boycott..”



js. 02.05.13 at 2:56 am

your idea of an effective campaign is “don’t buy from the Jew(s)” – I think it’s disastrous both symbolically and strategically…

Well, I guess then we’re in luck! Because this, whatever it is, is absolutely nobody’s idea of an effective campaign, and moreover, has nothing at all to do with BDS. BDS, here on Earth, is a campaign to boycott and divest from products produced in, companies based in, etc., the Occupied Territories, as well as Israeli institutions that actively support the Occupation. (There’s more than one version of BDS, and some of the specifics above won’t hold true of all them. But the above is I think the most common understanding.) In any case, nothing anywhere about “not buying from the Jew(s)”!


JW Mason 02.05.13 at 3:17 am

rf, There is no specifically *academic* boycott.


adam.smith 02.05.13 at 3:47 am

“We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. ”

That’s the original BDS call. Note the “broad” and the reference to RSA. And for reference the content of the Anti-Apartheid act:
“The Act banned new U.S. investment in South Africa, sales to the police and military, and new bank loans, except for the purpose of trade. Specific measures against trade included the prohibition of the import of agricultural goods, textiles, shellfish, steel, iron, uranium and the products of state-owned corporations.”

So yes, the Judith Butler version of this is more nuanced, but original BDS is damn close to “don’t buy from the Jews.”
I’m going to leave it at that because I don’t want to derail this too far and will just re-iterate that as misguided as I find BDS I think the BC polisci department is fulfilling it’s educational mission by sponsoring an event with two of its most prominent exponents.


shah8 02.05.13 at 4:11 am

Joe Lieberman should have been divested a long time ago…



js. 02.05.13 at 4:18 am

…to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel…

The key phrase here is “against Israel”. If you don’t see the difference between this (a campaign aimed at a particular state and its institutions) and what you originally implied (a campaign against a group of people that share a religious and/or cultural background), then I’m afraid I can’t help you. In any case, I don’t want to derail the thread either, so this will be my last on this.


christian_h 02.05.13 at 5:01 am

adam.smith is an anti-semite. Only an anti-semite would conflate “boycott Israeli institutions” and “don’t buy from Jews”.


Henry Farrell 02.05.13 at 5:09 am

Jesus. The People’s Front of Judea versus the Judean People’s Front how are ya. Brendan Behan has a famous quote that the first item on the agenda of any IRA meeting was The Split. Looking at the response to Corey’s efforts to talk about a very straightforward problem is … remarkable … You don’t have to take a position on whether the BDS is a good idea, to think that it is a very bad idea to have prominent politicians threatening a university’s funding because it has the effrontery to invite people to debate the BDS – and, presumably, respond to people who don’t like it. This is not a difficult or a complex issue, and the ability of people here to make it sound as if it is is enough to drive me to despair.


adam.smith 02.05.13 at 5:47 am

Henry – I did mention my position on BDS because I think it _does_ matter. Very often these things just run along partisan lines and so the fact that people who think BDS is a good idea think this is a violation of academic freedom isn’t particularly convincing, frankly.
Given that BDS has relatively little support in the US, a rather important part of the strategy would be to get people who think BDS is a bad idea – ideally people who have prominently & publicly said so in the past – to say that “it is a very bad idea to have prominent politicians threatening a university’s funding because it has the effrontery to invite people to debate the BDS”.


ML 02.05.13 at 5:54 am

I’m going to ask an incredibly stupid question: Why do this? For better or worse, this movement to divest is on the fringe. Do they really think it is an actual threat to Israel–the State of Israel? Doesn’t this kind of thing backfire in the end and make people defending Israel look like crazy extremists. Is that how they want to look?


ponce 02.05.13 at 6:14 am


“This is not a difficult or a complex issue, and the ability of people here to make it sound as if it is is enough to drive me to despair”

Do you really expect people like Alan Dershowitz to fight fair?


Pierre Gervais 02.05.13 at 8:11 am

Hi y’all,

I didn’t say what I thought of BDS because it seemed to me entirely besides the point (full disclosure: I am not sure what I think about it, but would probably endorse the Judith Butler position if pressed).

The situation here is crystal clear: both general free speech protection and particular academic freedom privileges cover the BDS event, which should be free from interference.

But, there is a but. In my direct experience of the issue, the protests against BDS tend to equate “Israel”, a well-defined, rather small Nation-State run by a government with a very specific set of policies, with “Jews”, a worldwide religious-ethnic group with porous barriers and very diverse political positions. If one accepts this identification, then BDS by calling for a boycott of Israeli institutions is effectively calling for racial discrimination against all Jews, can be put on a par with white supremacists, and inviting them on campus is a bad idea and must be opposed. I bet Dershowitz does not feel any qualms about boycotting the Iranians, or the Cubans.

Full disclosure 2: I am a (non-practicing, not that interested in Jewishness) Jew. And I am adamantly opposed to equating “Israel” with “Jews”, and I know I am not the only one out there. But this equation is still the basis for flaring tempers every time any issue connected to the Israeli/Palestine conflict is raised. So please Henry Farrell, do not despair, but there is indeed some complexity and difficulty involved for a certain set of people. Not that I approve, of course.


P.S.@adamsmith: just a thought, your argument applies equally well to defending Dershowitz’s right to come and give a speech (or lots of other people on many topics, indeed). In fact, since pushbacks against bona fide free speech militants are rare on campus, variations on the apocryphal Voltaire quote (“I disagree with what you say but will fight for your right to say it”) is an extremely frequent feature of free speech fights.


Niall McAuley 02.05.13 at 9:04 am

Pierre, do you actually think that is what is going on? That the people who equate any criticism of Israel with anti-semitism really believe that identification is valid?

I always assumed that it was just a debating tactic: an appeal to emotion, to the gallery, to enlist sympathy for their position while associating their opponents with history’s greatest monsters.


Z 02.05.13 at 9:10 am

Dear Corey,
Your department and the president of your institution are displaying remarkable courage and clarity of thinking. Is there anyway (beyond the petition, which I have already signed) to lend them support (without overflowing their mailbox)?


Andrew F. 02.05.13 at 10:59 am

Inviting opposing speakers is an excellent response, but the actual procurement of a credible opponent would defuse this (though I wonder whether this would result in the cancellation of the event). Once the event truly becomes a panel discussion – not simply two speeches by BDS proponents followed by some Q&A – the individuals seeking to have sponsorship of it dropped would be deprived of their key argument.

I’m sympathetic to the academic freedom argument, although I’d disagree with those who imply that this is a central instance of the exercise of academic freedom deserving of protection. This is a political recruiting event, not a discussion intended to further knowledge or research. Nonetheless, proximal access to proponents of political ideas and policies can be a component of engaging with and understanding those ideas and policies, and so as a general matter interfering with a department’s decision to help “provide access” is an interference – at the boundary in this case – with their free functioning as an academic department.

I also do not believe that one can discuss this issue without discussing BDS. Academic freedom, particularly with respect to events intended for students, is not unlimited. Sponsorship of events that allow hateful and intellectually indefensible groups to proselytize, for example, may be so clearly outside the function and purpose of a university that those who fund the university can become involved without impinging upon the range of discretion that should be afforded to universities. To the extent necessary to determine whether sponsorship of a BDS lecture exceeds the boundaries of an appropriate range of academic freedom and discretion, therefore, some discussion of BDS is required.

The source group of those opposed to the BDS lecture do not believe that BDS rise to the minimal level of credibility, and do believe that BDS is, with sufficient clarity, unethical and hateful, such as to merit the interference of those who fund the university.

I don’t know enough about BDS to say – the project does seem a bit stupid, frankly – but it’s not a subject that can simply be dismissed from the matter, as though this were wholly a discussion of academic freedom as a principle. WHO is speaking at the sponsored event, and WHY, are relevant parts of the question.


Pierre Gervais 02.05.13 at 12:33 pm

Quick follow-up:

@ Niall McAuley: yes, I do think they believe it. Knowing a few hard-line pro-Israeli Jews, this equation is at the heart of their worldview, so much so that they have a hard time wrapping their heads around non-rabidly-pro-Israeli Jews, and freak out when faced with what they see as these self-hating, self-destructive Jews.

@ Andrew F.: that’s the whole point of my preceding post. The only generally accepted limit on academic freedom (and in France, on free speech in general: some types of speech are criminalized) is rejection of racial/religious hatred, bigotry —group hate, one could say. But filing away BDS under any of these headings requires the basic sleight-of-hand I was mentioning, which is routinely practiced not only by defenders of Israeli policy, but by the Israeli governement, on a massive scale. This I find deeply dishonest, offensive even, and alo an impediment to any reasonable discussion of the Mid-East.



Manta 02.05.13 at 1:15 pm

I find it quite depressing that Karen Gould’s statement, instead of being considered the normal response of a University president, is a bold declaration.

It’s a bad sign when boilerplate statements become marks of courage.


rf 02.05.13 at 2:03 pm

Kaveh, I see what you’re saying. I just don’t think everything MLK said is applicable everywhere, always and for ever, or that US racial politics should be the starting/middle or end point for nigh on 99% of the world’s problems. So for example, MLK was a big Zionist and in these circumstances would probably be out drumming up outrage with Dershowitz, using those famous oratorical gifts for bad rather than good. But that’s neither here nor there.
I like you and your postings around here Kaveh, and agreeing with Henry I’d hate to see CT go the way of our beloved IRA (I’m throwing this winky in ; ) lest anyone take that seriously) so .. I’ll leave it there

As an addendum, I don’t know about this

“Sponsorship of events that allow hateful and intellectually indefensible groups to proselytize, for example, may be so clearly outside the function and purpose of a university..”

Salient described on another thread how the college s/he works at dealt with it, which seemed pretty impressive


D. De 02.05.13 at 3:24 pm

Andrew F. @30

Thanks for a bit of common sense. We had a similar kerfuffle at my institution about an event that was not sponsored by the polisci dept. but was thought to have the school’s imprimatur inasmuch as the venue was provided and the event officially announced. Recruitment of a balanced panel quickly defused things. Why can’t something similar have been done here? After all, no one (?) is pretending that this is a purely academic event?


SamChevre 02.05.13 at 4:31 pm

Salient described on another thread how the college s/he works at dealt with it, which seemed pretty impressive.

I will guess (with no knowledge whatsoever) that if the City Council was certain that the administration would be as organizedly hostile to the presenters as the Ivy League law schools were to military recruiters in the DADT era, or if they were confident that the students would be as organizedly hostile and well-supported as students were to John Yoo at the Boalt Hall commencement, they would probably not be opposing the event.


JW Mason 02.05.13 at 4:35 pm


That seems exactly backward to me. A uniformly unpopular cause is the easiest one to grandstand against.


rea 02.05.13 at 4:57 pm

If I understand correctly, Mayor Giuliani and the NY City Council went through this a few years ago, when they tried to defund the Brooklyn Museum out of displeasure at an exhibition that some regarded as blasphemous. The result was that a federal judge ruled that their actions were unconstitutional, and required that the funding be restored. An attempt to defund Brooklyn College in the face of this precedent would show a certain contempt for the rule of law.


Uncle Kvetch 02.05.13 at 5:21 pm

This is a political recruiting event, not a discussion intended to further knowledge or research.

I would like to see some evidence for this assertion.


Kaveh 02.05.13 at 5:58 pm

I want to second Pierre G’s point that whether this panel discussion on BDS is (or comes close to) hate speech is relevant in general, even if many people think that this is not relevant to whether it is protected speech. There even may be people who would take a stand on Brooklyn College, but for whom the principle of academic freedom isn’t the #1 issue (whether Dershowitz & Co. are bullies might be more important).

I’m very glad to see people standing up for academic freedom in this case even if they think BDS is badly misguided, and I think reasonable people can disagree on whether it is, but I do still think it’s necessary to object to manifest untruths, such as equating a boycott of Caterpillar because they make armored bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes with boycotting the Jewish-run bakery down the street.


Mao Cheng Ji 02.05.13 at 6:11 pm

“and I think reasonable people can disagree on whether it is”

Those who think BDS is badly misguided, if they want to be qualified as ‘reasonable’, need to offer an alternative.


shah8 02.05.13 at 6:49 pm

I don’t think it’s badly misguided. I think the dubious aspects/strains are a predictable result of people being prevented from more ethical means of change.

As a point of general strategy, I also think it’s misguided to focus on Israel. There are many serious issues with stateless (or violently repressed second-class citizens, Nagas as a prime example) people in the world, and in these recessionary times, many of them really, really, need the help. Nobody wants to boycott Indian scientists, do they? However, I think that Nehru’s expansionism into the 60’s were permitted largely in the same language as Israel’s expansionism (this tends to be clear to me from China’s unusually deft combination of military and diplomatic muscle, using the context of the Cuban Missle Crisis to push back, very firmly on what appears to be Western supported Indian expansionism (nonwithstanding the Nonaligned movement)–forshadowing the ’73 war). US’s consistent support for superconsolidated leadership worldwide comes embedded with a complete disrespect for the lives of ethnic minorities that then suffer. The main reason Israel, or South Africa gets the BDS treatment derives from the overt supremacism and performative humiliation of the untermenschen. SA did liberalize, but in the end, not very much, which has contributed to a simmering radicalism on the streets. I can’t think BDS would amount to much more for Palestinians than it did for black South Africans. What was always more important is to think about ways of coercing the US elite faction to tolerate more liberal and decentralized societies outside of the first world (and reversing technocracy tinged illiberalism in the first world as well). Keeping in mind the gains possible for Palestinians and where the real loot of change is, I think that boycotting Israeli institutions and thinkers is a mistake that assists in preserving what is functionally a junta in Israel, and which should be an important target for removal. I also think that disregarding the agencies of other people, even those that must participate in the gains of injustice, is immoral and would affect our own capacity to see and act with moral insight.

Hmph, the free speech fight was always more important than BDS. The fact that there *was* a fight at all, is due to Gould, where there should be enormous credit given. More importantly, this is something that might inspire a more general rollback against the constrictions in academic thought that has been occurring as state dollars have dried up.


Salient 02.05.13 at 6:57 pm

It’s a bad sign when boilerplate statements become marks of courage.

I believe the longer-term goal here is to see marks of courage become boilerplate statements.

I will guess […] they would probably not be opposing the event.

Whereas I’d guess (also with no knowledge whatsoever) if they weren’t getting pestered by Dershowitz et alia, they would probably not be opposing the event. If I somehow discovered there really was any genuine matter of introspective principle whatsoever that was motivating those ten letter-signers, I’d be floored.

And I think that’s all the more reason to take a strong stand here — the ten letter-signers are openly wielding politically oppressive state power on behalf of their financial benefactors. The only way I know to counteract that is political intimidation, petitions and letters and protests and etc, creating a sense that their overreach is beyond the pale.


Mao Cheng Ji 02.05.13 at 7:28 pm

“However, I think that Nehru’s expansionism into the 60′s were permitted largely in the same language as Israel’s expansionism”

Seriously? India has been controlling a territory for 50 years, where it refuses to grant citizenship to its native population, is this what you’re saying? I’d like know more. Thanks.


novakant 02.05.13 at 9:04 pm

More Barenboim, less Loach!


James 02.05.13 at 11:41 pm

This seems to be lost in many of these discussions. In the US, even in US academics, you have a constitutional right to be a jerk. This right does include the right to hate speech but not the right to advocate immediate violence. Under those broad rules, BDS should be allowed to speak.

It has been my understanding that Universities exercise the authority (not necessarily the legal right) to exclude whomever they feel like for whatever random reason they come up with. This type of behavior is pretty common when the individuals speaking irks some vocal group.


SC 02.05.13 at 11:57 pm

…An attempt to defund Brooklyn College in the face of this precedent would show a certain contempt for the rule of law…

I just took a look at Nina Gershon’s decision in the Brooklyn Museum vs. Guiliani case. (It’s a fairly lively read and while the details differ it does seem applicable to the matter at hand: http://www.nyed.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions/99cv6071.pdf.)

Gershon says “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 government demand for orthodoxy.”

However, I’d guess that the rule of law has drifted a bit since 1999. Presumably, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit would uphold a similar ruling but I’ve been disappointed once or twice in recent years.


purple 02.06.13 at 2:28 am

The BDS is a bit rich coming from Americans. We should boycott ourselves.


Socialism is a Mental Disorder 02.06.13 at 2:51 am

I agree. This is very troubling.


Socialism is a Mental Disorder 02.06.13 at 2:58 am

The bigger questions are why do we let the Zionists lobby our government (I’m sure George Washington would have loved that.) And why do we treat Israel like it is a part of America. It was a mistake of epic proportions to allow the state to be created but how long to we have to drain blood and treasure to sustain that which is unsustainable? An belive me I am no friend of Islam.


ponce 02.06.13 at 8:06 am


Considering every other country in the world treats Israel like a pariah (except China, which treats it as a source of U.S. military secrets…), you really have to wonder how valuable it is for Israel to own the the weaker of the two U.S. political parties.


Pete 02.06.13 at 10:25 am

@Moderators : are you really going to let someone post under the troll name “Socialism is a Mental Disorder”? (oddly, this objectionable name is attached to reasonable posts …)


William Berry 02.06.13 at 3:48 pm

Off-topic, I know, but thnx to CT for inspiring me to learn more about Judith Butler. I am a not-so-well-read but enthusiastic fan of post-structuralism, especially of the works of Jaques Derrida and Roland Barthes. I have downloaded GENDER TROUBLE and started reading it. Exciting and fascinating material.

I have no strong position on BDS (some of my friends support BDS, some oppose it; I stand by my friends!) but I wholeheartedly support Brooklyn College, Corey Robin and colleagues, and the department in this matter.


Socialism is a Mental Disorder 02.06.13 at 5:19 pm

Sorry, didn’t mean to offend with the name. I’ll return with a less objectionable one.


ponce 02.06.13 at 5:44 pm

Looks like Mayor Bloomberg stands for academic freedonm.


Steve LaBonne 02.06.13 at 6:07 pm

Good for Bloomberg.


Kaveh 02.06.13 at 6:14 pm

ponce @70, do they really? A lot of Europe wouldn’t even vote to recognize Palestine as a state, which even if they did, that would certainly not amount to treating Israel as a pariah–whereas voting ‘no’ on Palestinian statehood is actively supporting Israel against a just cause.

Socialism @69, “draining blood”? (eyeroll)


ponce 02.06.13 at 6:44 pm


Israeli leaders still avoid visiting Britain because they fear they will be (rightly) arrested as war criminals.

Israel as a secular enterprise whas very admirable.

Israel as a religious crusade is..less than admirable.


William Berry 02.06.13 at 6:53 pm

Bloomberg statement:

“Well look, I couldn’t disagree more violently with BDS as they call it, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. As you know I’m a big supporter of Israel, as big a one as you can find in the city, but I could also not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic that they choose. I mean, if you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.

The last thing that we need is for members of our City Council or State Legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run, and base funding decisions on the political views of professors. I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students.

You know, the freedom to discuss ideas, including ideas that people find repugnant, lies really at the heart of the university system, and take that away and higher education in this country would certainly die.”

I am Far from being a partisan of Mayor Bloomberg, but I have to say: “Heeluva of a job, Mayor!”


SC 02.06.13 at 7:23 pm

Bloomberg is surprisingly, well, rational at times. (During the Park 51 mess, he even quoted from the Flushing Remonstrance.)

Someone should post the whole statement but Bloomberg also said:

“If you want to promote views that you find abhorrent, this is exactly the way to do it. What the protesters have done is given a lot of attention to the very idea they keep saying they don’t want people to talk about!”

“They just don’t think before they open their mouths. The best way to popularize an idea or book or a movie is just to get someone to ban it . . . Now they’ve created the very monster that they say they’re opposed to.”


Gabriel Brahm 02.08.13 at 1:13 am

With Academic Freedom like this, who needs Racist Demagogy?, http://www.fathomjournal.org/policy-politics/alibi-antisemitism/
Nice work, you must be very proud.


Gabriel Brahm 02.08.13 at 1:15 am

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