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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

7 of 7 Stories

Conservative Tabloid Targets City College
Did the CUNY chancellor allow the New York Post to set his agenda?

By Ron Feemster

Who sets free-speech policy at the City College of New York? Is it Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University of New York? The CUNY board of trustees? Or the New York Post, a scrappy tabloid owned by the conservative Australian media baron, Rupert Murdoch? During the weeks after a terrorism teach-in at CCNY last October, students, faculty and free speech advocates could never be sure.

The City College teach-in, attended by 200 students and faculty, was one of hundreds around the country last fall, where university communities grappled with terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and the direction of U.S. foreign policy. In New York City alone, during the weeks between the September 11 attacks and the onset of bombing in Afghanistan, more than a dozen similar events were held, including forums at Columbia University, NYU and New School University, as well as other City University campuses.

Most of these events blended personal testimony from rescue workers and survivors with cram courses on Wahabi fundamentalism, Pashtun warlords and Afghan history. At CCNY, a student recounted his experience as an emergency medical technician at "ground zero." A Muslim woman shared her fear and horror at the attacks. Other speakers harped on the role of the United States in arming the Afghan rebels who battled Soviet invaders in the 1980s and then, after U.S. aid was withdrawn, became part of terrorist forces, including Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda. Similar political themes sounded at Columbia and Hunter College, a CUNY campus.

The New York Post stitched the nowfamiliar idea that U.S. military policy contributed to the growth of Al Qaeda into an attack on City College, portraying the teach-in as an anti-American "hatefest" at which professors "blamed" the United States for the terrorist attacks. Although the news story acknowledged that some participants defended American policies, the paper as a whole lashed out at the school.

Under the headline "Once-Proud Campus a Breeding Ground for Idiots," columnist Andrea Peyser called CCNY professors "too blind, stupid or intellectually dishonest to tell the difference between the divisive war in Vietnam and the coming war against terrorism that's uniting Americans." The following day, in an editorial, the paper retracted its call for increased public funding for CUNY.

At noon on October 3, with the Post's criticism still fresh on the newsstand, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein delivered a speech to the Center for Educational Innovation and Public Education Association at the Harvard Club in midtown Manhattan. In remarks that he later lifted from his talk and released as an official statement on the teach-in, Goldstein took the CCNY speakers to task. His words echoed Peyser's column.

"I have no sympathy for the voices of those who seek to justify or make lame excuses for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with arguments based on ideological or historical circumstances," Goldstein said. Two paragraphs later, the chancellor offered a lukewarm defense of free speech: "One of the challenges now before us is to maintain our determination, resolve and solidarity without compromising the free exchange of ideas." The CUNY Board of Trustees, which had originally considered a stronger statement branding the event "seditious," adopted Goldstein's statement as a resolution at the October 22 board meeting.

On campus, Goldstein's remarks—and the trustees' endorsement of them—were widely regarded as betrayal. "It's one thing for the Post to distort the event and attack it," said Steve London, vice president of professional staff council, the union that sponsored the teach-in. "But it is very disappointing that the chancellor's views would be shaped by disinformation and distortion."

Peyser says her take on the event was anything but a distortion: "There were other voices," she said. "But the ones who were not with the program got shouted down."The columnist said she got a thankyou call from an army reservist who left in disgust when he realized his call for a strong military response to the attacks would not be heard.

Many on campus who believe that the chancellor bought the Post's spin on the teach-in also think that the Post picked on CCNY instead of wealthier private institutions like Columbia or NYU. "The New York Post was targeting a working-class college with a high proportion of minorities," London said. "The panelists included people who supported and who opposed military action.This was just an attempt to question the patriotism of the working class."

As the academic home of Leonard Jeffries, a black social scientist who taught that intelligence is determined in part by the amount of melanin in a person's skin, CCNY has been an easy target for the Post in the past. And one can never underestimate the tabloid's love of a shocking expression. Less than two weeks earlier, in a column on "America-bashing," Peyser called CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour a "war slut." Rupert Murdoch apologized personally after Amanpour complained.

Did the CUNY chancellor allow the media—specifically the Post—to set his agenda? Finding out is not easy. Goldstein declined repeated invitations to be interviewed for this article. His staff claims that he spoke with people on the CCNY campus before his remarks, but declined to say whom. London knows of no organizers or participants in the teach-in who spoke with the chancellor before he issued his statement. "The chancellor's schedule and contacts are private," said Michael Arena,a CUNY spokesman.

Two months after the teach-in, the CUNY media relations department was sending reporters three "quotes" from participants at the event, such as, "We have to redefine terrorism to include what the U.S. government does." Unfortunately, the news release contains no attribution for these remarks, and no clue about who reported them. Nor was Goldstein's staff saying when he became aware of these remarks.

 
  City University Chancellor Matthew Goldstein criticized faculty members who “make lame excuses for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”
"The chancellor was ill-informed," said Gary Benenson, an engineering professor and union chapter chair who helped organize the event. "The leaders of an academic institution ought to explore the issues before they make public statements. As a result of the Post article and the statements of the chancellor and trustees, five people got death threats. I think the chancellor was complicit in that."

Among the professors who got threatening calls and e-mail was Walter Daum, who describes himself as the "resident revolutionary of the math department."He thinks the Post—and the chancellor—just missed the point. "I don't know anyone who wasn't horrified and didn't condemn the attacks," he said. "At the same time I felt the U.S. government was in the wrong on many policy issues.A university teach-in ought to be the proper place to say that."

 
City College math professor Walter Daum received threatening calls and e-mails after opposing U.S. policy at a campus teach-in.  
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education agrees with Daum. But as freespeech advocates, they are quick to defend the newspaper's right to denounce the teach-in. "I applaud all voices, whether attacking or praising," said Thor L. Halvorssen, executive director of FIRE. In the next breath, he blasted Goldstein for "gutless careerism" and "responding to whichever way the wind blows hardest. If we used political expediency as a criterion," he said, "we would be banning any and all speech."

Halvorssen, whose organization receives funds from sources as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Heritage Foundation, said that during the 1990s, the most frequent victims of anti-free speech movements have been organizations on the religious right. Since September 11, the pendulum has begun to swing back to the left.

What Halvorssen objects to in the CUNY case is not that Goldstein expressed his opinion, but that he chose to do so from an institutional pulpit. "Goldstein and the CUNY trustees created an atmosphere on campus that chilled discussion of faculty and students by letting everyone know that CUNY had a view."

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