Free Speech and Funding Fears


Political self-defense seems to be the most savory of theories behind why the City University of New York Law School’s dean nixed a student bid to honor criminal defense attorney Lynne Stewart with the Public Interest Lawyer Award at graduation next month. Stewart, the first attorney targeted by the U. S. war on terror, is under a federal indictment on charges of aiding a terrorist organization resulting from her representation of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the cleric jailed for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Stewart is accused of helping to pass along information from the sheikh to his followers and could face a 40-year sentence.

By selecting her for the honor, CUNY Law students joined dozens of attorney associations in expressing outrage at the government’s taping of Stewart’s conversations with her client and other infringements on constitutional rights involved in the indictment. Despite its tradition of cultivating left-leaning, public interest attorneys, CUNY Law is joining an apparent nationwide trend in academia of backing down on freedom-of-speech issues when it comes to so-called un-American viewpoints.

In a closed meeting last week, CUNY School of Law dean Kristin Booth Glen told a tiny group of invited students that she would not accept their petition of 73 names—more than half the graduating class—to honor Stewart with the traditionally student-chosen award at graduation.

In a later e-mail to students, Glen implied Stewart’s presence would bring heat from political higher-ups who control the purse strings of the law school. “In my judgment the presentation of this award at graduation . . . could lead to consequences that could be damaging,” the e-mail reads. “As a public institution that is part of a public university, the Law School is accountable to many constituencies and is dependent on the university and state officials for its existence. This is particularly true during these extraordinarily difficult financial times.” But Glen also noted a “substantial minority of students” who would find honoring Stewart “hurtful.”

It’s not that students don’t recognize Glen’s struggle to maintain the life of the school—even at the cost of silence. Threats to funding are not new to CUNY Law, which is only a tiny part of a Republican-run CUNY system. CUNY Law came under direct criticism for spending more time on social justice issues than on preparing students to pass the bar—it has consistently had only a 50 percent passage rate.

But to many, “rolling over” is paramount to a death sentence—and a win for those, like Attorney General John Ashcroft, targeting constitutional rights in the war on terror. In 1998, long before the USA Patriot Act, the Justice Department got permission to use a legal loophole to spy on Stewart and her client. Since then, the Bush administration’s USA Patriot Act has eased use of this tactic.

Stewart was chosen as the recipient of the award as much to show solidarity with her cause as to honor her 25-year career of defending everyone from liberation movement activists to mobster Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano. The award is a statement against government efforts to silence attorneys who choose to defend those with an unpopular cause in times that are beginning to make the McCarthy era look like training camp.

“There is an irrational fear being used to suppress civil liberties. We [CUNY Law] are supposed to be challenging that, and this decision is throwing all of that out the window,” says Kavita Pawria, a graduating student.

There is also a nagging question: “What’s going to happen to the rest of us?” asks Kris Kraus, the student vice president of the Criminal Law Society. “If this can happen to Stewart, what’s going to happen to me when I am in the Bronx defending some guy charged with marijuana possession?” More pressing is concern for the attorneys now involved in defending other high-profile terrorism cases, including six African Americans held in Portland charged with having links to Al Qaeda.

Stewart has been quite free with her speech since her arrest April 9, 2002, but spokespeople for the Lynne Stewart Legal Defense Committee said she would not comment on CUNY’s decision. “People like the left going after the left; she doesn’t feel that’s appropriate,” said Pat Levasseur of the defense committee. Levasseur said that Stewart is “honored and touched” that she was selected as a nominee and “shocked and saddened that we live in such a climate of fear” that she can’t receive the award. She noted that CUNY is known for offering a legal education “to those who wouldn’t otherwise receive one” and that the school has sent a number of students to work with Stewart on cases, including her own.

But last week wasn’t the first time a university didn’t see fit to support Stewart. Last November, Stewart was spurned by Stanford University after flying across the country to act as a student mentor in the law school’s public-interest practice. Upon arriving at the hotel, Stewart found a fax from Stanford Law dean Kathleen M. Sullivan, canceling the mentoring appointment. Sullivan later released a statement saying she couldn’t support Stewart’s “endorsement of the use of directed violence.”

At the time, Stewart called Sullivan’s move “outrageous” and a “further chilling of the atmosphere for civil rights in this country.” Asked why her reaction was different to CUNY’s decision, Levasseur noted the “very real” threats and “precarious ground”on which CUNY Law stands as a public university. “Obviously the same climate of fear exists” for both schools. “In that case it was Stanford elitism.”

But fear—or at least the reflex to toe the line—seems to be a running theme in how academia, once on the forefront of radical thought, is dealing with free speech these days. In September, 2001, tenured University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian was suspended after his history of anti-Israel statements was aired on The O’Reilly Factor. He was recently arrested on charges of facilitating terrorism for his alleged connections with a Palestinian jihadist group. At Columbia University, fellow professors marooned anthropologist Nicholas De Genova for his remark at a campus anti-war teach-in that he “wished a thousand Mogadishus” on the U.S. military.

CUNY Law’s administration recently bowed out of taking a stand on affirmative action despite the majority of faculty and students maintaining strong support of the policy. While the school sponsored a busload of students to Washington, D.C., on the day the Supreme Court would hear arguments in the University of Michigan case, spokespeople for the school insisted that CUNY Law spent no public funds on the trip and had “no official position on affirmative action.”

Certainly CUNY Law’s faculty has limited protest in the Stewart scenario. “The dean wanted to know the faculty was behind her,” said CUNY law professor Frank Deale. “I don’t think anyone could deny her fears. It’s pretty clear the state is in a budget crisis, we are having difficulty with bar passage and we are being constantly attacked in the New York Post.” Still, Deale said most faculty members support Stewart and the fight to protect an attorney’s right to defend all clients.

The effort to appease both sides became apparent in Glen’s final decision on Stewart. In an attempt to respect the rights of the student body and show solidarity with the cause, Glen said students could present an award to Stewart, however not during the graduation ceremony.

Stewart will not likely receive the Public Interest Lawyer Award, but will receive an honor from the Criminal Law Society during a private ceremony on campus this week.