When it comes to free speech, restrictions may occur

14 mins read

Protests against injustices, security following protesters, censorship of ideas and arrests of activists; what might appear to be a scene at Queens College during the mid-1950s to the early 1970s is actually a present day concern with the Oct. 17 arrest of a Socialist Alternative non-student organizer and the censorship of websites on the school’s terminals.

The origin of this censorship is QC itself — along with the police — against protesters on campus, in both physical and virtual form, for unknown reasons.

The International Communist League-Fourth International website is blocked on the domains for featuring views not deemed appropriate by QC. A content filter restricts access to the site because it is a “domain with extremism [sic] contents.” No other socialist website, not even Socialist Alternative’s site, is blocked for similar reasons.

In addition, the arrest of Jesse Lessinger, a non-student organizer with Socialist Alternative who was arrested and charged with “trespassing” and taken away by Public Safety guards. Although the charges were later dropped, the arrest came as a shock to the Socialist Alternative members, as the non-student organizer had accompanied the group several times on campus without any disruption.

Due to this, their protest against student debt and for free education had been affected.

QC political science professor Carl Bonomo, acknowledged that he did not know the details of these cases and believes that there was more to the story. He said the school had a responsibility on any disruptions on campus.

“I don’t know the person, I don’t know what was happening, but if they [the student] don’t go here, if that in fact is the case, then there’s going to be a limitation,” Bonomo said.

QC policy on acts involving free speech and protests must follow the Henderson Rules, which require students not to “obstruct and/or forcibly prevent others from the exercise of their rights.” The Rules also ensure that any CUNY colleges can remove “any and all person[s] who have no legitimate reasons for their presence on any campus.” These rules ensure the college has “the right, and indeed the obligation, to defend itself.”

Lessinger, felt differently on that particular day and gave his own insights onto what happened to him and the organization.


“We were clearly targeted and faced a ramped up security presence for a small peaceful student protest. Both the arrest and intimidating environment are a clear violation of our democratic rights but we won’t let this incident stop us. The Socialist Alternative club is continuing to organize this semester,” Lessinger said.

These restrictions are an echo to the 1950s, where faculty members were fired due to allegations of Communist ties in an era where McCarthyism increased anti-Communist hysteria. Bonomo was hesitant describe the situation with the term.

“McCarthyism is a pretty strong label to put on anything. I think that if you’re going to do that you have responsibility to your own rights, and to the rights of others, to not just say it, but make a very strong argument for it,” Bonomo said.

McCarthyism refers specifically to Sen. Joseph McCarthy who, in the 1950s, asserted that many officials and representatives in government were Communist spies or sympathizers even though he lacked evidence for his claims and later had his political career ruined as a result. The term lives on as a phrase that restricts dissent and questions loyalty of individuals or groups to a particular group or nation.

History professor, Carol Giardina said there was more to the term McCarthyism when describing any situation involving censorship,

“McCarthyism, using the term, is an easy way to let people know what you mean, still today, so it’s good in that way,” Giardina said. “But it promotes the wrong idea that McCarthy alone made the political repression happen, which is not so at all.”

The book, “People’s College on the Hill,” recommended by Giardina to further understand QC’s history with such issues, describes QC’s history from 1937 to 1987. Protests during the era include one from the Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge program in the 1960s against issues of that time. The mid-20th century in the U.S. reflected growing unrest against injustices that spread across all areas, even at QC.

Bonomo disagreed that both eras could be considered identical to one another and parallels couldn’t be made when there were significant differences.

“It was a different time, there were different things going on. People at that moment of time felt that there were certain things that needed to be addressed. They addressed them in a way that was most effective,” Bonomo said.

However, he added that if enough students were involved in the matter, compared to years before, then there would definitely be a move for change and an argument that there is parallel between both eras.

Students on campus feel that such restrictions do not provide benefit to the goal of education.

“Repression and censorship are far from beneficial to education. The beauty of academia is the free flow of ideas, which provides a landscape for students and faculty alike to engage in thought-provoking discourse,” junior, Patryk Perkowski said. “Academic freedom is a right, not a privilege and any effort by QC or any university to hamper such freedoms goes directly against the mission of the academy, which is to foster and stimulate intellectual growth.”

The discussion of censorship and First Amendment rights at QC reflects the discussion of civil liberties across the country, such as the John Kiriakou case, a CIA whistleblower.

The Obama administration and the Justice Department accused Kiriakou of releasing classified information to journalists that featured the name of a fellow “covert CIA officer,” and others that were related to torture.

He has been charged with violating the Espionage Act, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and “allegedly lying to the Publications Review Board of the CIA,” over information in his book that has led to him serving 30 months in jail.

“I don’t think I am overstating this when I say I feel like we’re entering a second McCarthy era where the Justice Department uses the law as a fist or as a hammer not just to try and convict people but to ruin them personally and professionally because they don’t like where they stand on different issues,” Kiriakou said to journalist Kevin Gosztola on Firedoglake, a progressive news website.

The case around Kiriakou is significant considering the issue of censorship regarding torture and whistleblowers in the U.S. government over foreign policy.

The interview with Kiriakou on Firedoglake — or any article on the site — is blocked on the QC terminals; “domain with chat contents,” comes up as a reason for it being restricted.  An article by economist Dean Baker is available to view on his blog, Beat the Press, but it cannot be seen on Firedoglake.

Socialist Alternative recently achieved club status, yet the arrest last year has not deterred their activity on campus. SA member Shamari Stewart expressed doubts over QC’s policy for those participating in free speech.

“I participated in a rally on campus last year about [the] Trayvon Martin shooting and there was no security issue. Then when we do a rally on student debt and for-profit education, security is following us around the entire time and kicking people off campus that aren’t students? That sends a message,” Stewart said.

The events on campus have led to concerns among students, primarily activists, on their rights. Stewart could not believe such an arrest would occur at QC and was surprised.

“That honestly shocked me and showed me that QC and/or CUNY are not in favor of political protests. It’s unfortunate, considering college campuses are supposed to be environments to support learning and thinking and expressing your opinion, not a place where your opinion is discouraged from being said openly,” Stewart said.

Meryl Kaynard, QC general counsel to the president and special counsel for lab/management relations, stated that QC didn’t follow any censorship over websites and immediately took down the restrictions due to a “glitch” in the system.

“This was a glitch that affected only the kiosk computers and was not in effect throughout the network. All web filtering on the kiosk computers has since been disabled. Please be assured that Queens College is committed to a policy that will not restrict access to websites based on content — unless such content is illegal.” Kaynard said.

Overall, these acts exist in a debate that is further part of what entails education. Bonomo felt that there was a central theme surrounding the issue—where the line is drawn on what students should do.

“The devil’s in the details, the problem is where that line is, that’s the great debate. All the questions being asked come down to ‘where’s the line?’” Bonomo said.

Students have their own insights about the role of education on matters such as these.

“I think it’s detrimental to education when you censor a majority of information because it takes away from the student’s right and ability to judge and sift through info. It [also] gives students a very limited view on different perspectives and thus severely lessens their ability to be unbiased when it comes to civil cases,” senior, Sean Duenas said.

The Kiriakou case is notorious for discussing what the attempt of censorship by the government meant for him.

“I am proud that I stood up to our government. I stood up for what I believed was right: conviction or no conviction. I mean they can convict anybody of anything if they put their minds to it, but I wear this [conviction] as a badge of honor,” Kiriakou said, in the same interview.

Michael Hodon, a Socialist Alternative member, expressed agreement with the quote.

“I agree 100 percent with John Kiriakou, no one holds a monopoly over something as subjective as ethics, and certainly not a force such as government that’s controlled by special interests,” Hodon said.

“If the federal government itself targets whistleblowers then how are we to expect any different from any private or public institution?”

Brandon Jordan

Brandon is a senior majoring in Political Science and Economics with a minor in Business And Liberal Arts. He covers labor and activism at CUNY. He also likes to cook, bake, run and make puns, sometimes not in that order. You can follow him on Twitter @BrandonJ_R and email him at brandon[at]theknightnews.com.

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