CUNY Law Students Protest Graduation After Annual Student Speech Canceled

CUNY Law School in the Long Island City section of Queens. (Luiz C. Ribeiro/New York Daily News/TNS)

(NY Daily News/TNS) – CUNY Law School graduates protested the school’s opening Thursday after the school, known for its public interest law and activism, canceled its annual student speech, which for the past two years has criticized Israel.

Administrators decided to get rid of student-elected speakers before the war between Israel and Hamas and widespread campus protests in the spring. But last month, a group of eight students sued the Queens Law School over the decision, alleging it violated their right to free speech to avoid backlash.

“There are no students speaking on this stage, because CUNY and CUNY Law are afraid that we will use the microphone to call for Palestinian liberation and an end to genocide,” dozens of graduates shouted during call-and-response during the ceremony at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

“We don’t need their microphone,” they shouted, videos posted on social media show. “We are the microphone.”

The beginning of this year was not broadcast live like in the past. The ceremony was also closed to media who did not register 10 days in advance, citing Apollo policy, a CUNY Law spokesperson said.

During the ceremony, about half of the school’s graduates stood and turned their backs on law school dean Sudha Setty as she spoke – with one protester shouting “shame on you”, footage shows posts on social networks. Many student protesters held pro-Palestinian signs, including “CUNY MUST DIVEST” and “THERE ARE NO GRADUATES IN GAZA,” as they walked through the graduation stage.

“CUNY Law has a long history of celebrating inauguration with elected student speakers, who often highlight social justice causes and freedom movements,” said law student Sajia Hanif in a statement released with the trial. “It is outrageous that CUNY would rather erase this tradition and stifle free speech than allow students to speak and be heard.”

CUNY law graduates also made headlines last year when they turned away from Mayor Eric Adams, who was booed as he delivered a commencement speech alluding to the more than two decades that he spent his time as a police officer.

“As we saw during debuts across the country, some participants chose to protest,” a CUNY Law spokesperson said in a statement, “but the event continued and we are proud of the 201 members of the Class of 2024, who celebrated their incredible achievements in front of family and friends.

The spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation.

In addition to the trial, preparation for graduation was fraught with challenges. Two guest speakers, including the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, withdrew in recent weeks, citing students’ concerns that their voices were being excluded.

The law school also struggled for months to find a place to graduate before landing on the Apollo, Gothamist reported. Her difficulties came after last year’s student speaker ignited a right-wing media firestorm for her remarks about what she called “Israeli settler colonialism.”

Adams said the speech was loaded with “negativity and division,” and CUNY officials later condemned it as “hate speech.”

This year, graduations across the country have been disrupted by pro-Palestinian protests and disruptions. In New York, a Columbia University social work graduate student, wearing ties, tore up a diploma folder on stage after the main ceremony was canceled, while dozens of protesters from the University of New York York stormed out of Yankee Stadium as the university president spoke.