Op-Ed in New York Daily News on the CUNY Protest

April 22nd, 2018

The New York Daily News published my op-ed about the CUNY Protest. Here is an excerpt:

 Several minutes into the protest, the Dean of Students warned the demonstrators that they “may not keep anyone from speaking,” and that she would come back if they continued interrupting me. But she did not come back, despite persistent heckling. And, to my knowledge, the school didn’t actually consider disciplining any of the students. Mary Lu Bilek, the Dean of the Law School, defended her students. Because of the interruption’s short duration, she insisted that “limited protest was a reasonable exercise of protected free speech.”

There was nothing “reasonable” about their heckling. As a practical matter, because of the delayed start, I did not have enough time to deliver the lecture I had planned to give. There simply would not have been enough time. As a matter of course, the invited speaker, and not the demonstrators, determines the schedule. But more pressingly, I don’t think I would have been able to deliver my prepared remarks if I wanted to. Despite my apparent composure, I was quite shocked by the demonstration, which was my first ever. Invited speakers have the right to speak freely without having hecklers stand (quite literally) over their shoulders, shouting them down.

I fear that other speakers, who would be more susceptible to the demonstrators’ tactics, may have abandoned the event altogether — that, I’m sure, was the protesters’ hope. It is no surprise, then, that University policyprohibits such conduct: students “shall not intentionally obstruct and/or forcibly prevent others from the exercise of their rights.” The students did exactly that — through their heckling, they sought to prevent me from exercising my constitutional right of free speech. That the disruption did not last for the entire hour is of no moment. Is the school really adopting a rule that protesters are allowed to disrupt 10% of an event without repercussions. I suspect that if the same group of students interrupted the first ten minutes of a first-year contracts class, or a lecture by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the punishment would have been swift.

In lieu of my prepared remarks, I chose to take questions from the students who remained for over an hour. It was an enriching discourse, to be sure, but I did not cover any of the points I had been invited to discuss. Indeed, I worried that at any moment, the protesters would return, once again disrupting my talk. Dean Bilek’s breezy dismissal that “the event preceded to its conclusion without incident” blinks reality.
I will write a far more detailed First Amendment analysis of the incident in due course.