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Is This the End of Academic Freedom?

​At New York University, the spring semester began with a poetry reading. Students and faculty gathered in the atrium of Bobst Library. At that time, about twenty six thousand Palestinians had already been killed in Israel’s horrific war on Gaza; the reading was a collective act of bearing witness.

The last poem read aloud was titled “If I Must Die.” It was written, hauntingly, by a Palestinian poet and academic named Refaat Alareer who had been killed weeks earlier by an Israeli airstrike. The poem ends: “If I must die, let it bring hope — let it be a tale.”

Soon after those lines were recited, the university administration shut the reading down. Afterward, we learned that students and faculty members were called into disciplinary meetings for participating in this apparently “disruptive” act; written warnings were issued.

We have both taught at N.Y.U. for over a decade, and believe we are in a moment of unparalleled repression. Over the past six months, since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza, we have seen the university administration fail to adequately protect dissent on campus, actively squelching it instead. We believe what we are witnessing in response to student, staff and faculty opposition to the war violates the very foundations of academic freedom.

While N.Y.U. says it remains committed to free expression on campus and that its rules about and approach to protest activity haven’t changed, students and faculty members in solidarity with the Palestinian people have found the campus environment alarmingly constrained.

About a week after Hamas’s attacks in October, the Grand Staircase in the Kimmel student center, a storied site of student protests, closed indefinitely; it has yet to reopen fully. A graduate student employee was reprimanded for putting up fliers in support of Palestinians on their office door, and ultimately took them down; they are not the only N.Y.U. student to face some form of disciplinary consequence for pro-Palestinian speech or action. A resolution calling for the university to reaffirm protection of pro-Palestinian speech and civic activity on campus, passed by the elected Student Government Assembly back in December, has apparently been stuck in a procedural black hole since.

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