People didn't want Linda Sarsour to speak at CUNY. Here's how "free speech" pundits responded.

People didn't want Linda Sarsour to speak at CUNY. Here's how "free speech" pundits responded.
Linda Sarsour attends the 21st Annual Webby Awards at Cipriani Wall Street in New York.
Source: Andy Kropa/AP
Linda Sarsour attends the 21st Annual Webby Awards at Cipriani Wall Street in New York.
Source: Andy Kropa/AP
opinion
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By now, civil rights activist Linda Sarsour is used to backlash. The opposition came in full force once again when Sarsour was announced the commencement speaker for City University of New York's School of Public Health 2017 graduating class. They didn't succeed.

On Thursday, Sarsour delivered her speech, where she paid homage to the victims of the Portland attack and Bowie State University student Richard W. Collins III, and received a standing ovation. But as one would expect from the Brooklyn native, Sarsour sent a subtle message to her critics.

"You already know it's been a more than a memorable and eventful experience for me, " Sarsour said to the audience. "And I am still standing and still unapologetically Muslim-American and Palestinian-American and from Brooklyn, New York."

This speaking engagement has recently made Sarsour a target for violent protests — where conservative activists punched and threw sticks at counter-protesters — and social media campaigns launched by hate activists, right-wing provocateurs and members of the Zionist movement alike. But unlike some of their steadfast support for the free speech of conservative commentators Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos, liberal "free speech" pundits rarely, if ever, spoke up on Sarsour's behalf.

So Mic reached out to some of them.

Jonathan Chait, a liberal commentator at New York Magazine, has written extensive criticism of political correctness, and the left's free speech conundrum, often accusing the "illiberal left" of using the fear associated with President Donald Trump to shut down the speech of conservative commentators and hate activists alike. He has come out in defense of Murray and Yiannopoulos, but has been noticeably quiet when it comes to the forceful opposition to Sarsour's CUNY speaking engagement.

Chait hadn't tweeted or written an op-ed critiquing the double standard in the conservative approach to free speech. Several left-wing talking heads and prominent Twitter personalities have pressured Chait to come out in defense of Sarsour, like he did for her conservative counterparts, or even tweet about the regressive response from the far right.

Chait didn't respond, until now.

"I would endorse the argument made by Emily Shire," Chait said in an email, citing a Washington Post op-ed in defense of Sarsour. "I find many of Sarsour's views repellant, but that does not disqualify her as a commencement speaker. This episode is another example of the parallel contempt for liberal discourse found on the far right and the far left."

Shire, a politics editor at Bustle, said despite her strong disagreement with Sarsour on the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, she believes it would be a "mistake" for pro-Israel advocates to interfere with her speech on Thursday. Sarsour has been a vocal supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a campaign to end the international support for Israel's occupation of Palestine, and has worked with Jewish Voice for Peace, a left-wing grassroots organization focusing on the Middle Eastern conflict.

When asked why Chait decided to comment on the widespread opposition to Sarsour's speaking engagement now, rather than when liberal and left-wing personalities pressured him on social media, he said he was preoccupied with Trump-related news.

"It was because you asked me," Chait said. "In general, Trump has been sucking up a huge share of my attention."

People hold sign critical of Linda Sarsour as part of an Alt Right protest of Muslim Activist Linda Sarsour on April 25, 2017 in New York City.
Source: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Chait is the only pundit, out of five, that responded to Mic's request for comment. The other pundits, all of whom have written op-eds either defending the free speech rights of conservative commentators or critiqued the left's response to Murray and Yiannopolous, are the Washington Post's Callum Borchers, CNN's Fareed Zakaria, New York Magazine's Andrew Sullivan and the Atlantic's Peter Beinart.

Sarsour, a Brooklyn native, endured an onslaught of protests and death threats since she was announced the commencement speaker at CUNY's graduation ceremony. Sarsour is Muslim, and she wears the hijab. She is "unapologetically" Palestinian-American — and perhaps to some, that's frightening. Brooklyn Assembly Dov Hikind, known for his association with radical groups like the Jewish Defense League and anti-Muslim activists, was one of the first to lead the charge against her CUNY speech. Devoid of any evidence, he has accused her of embezzling $100,000 she raised to help repair a vandalized Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.

According to Gothamist, Sarsour responded to Hikind's false allegations with a detailed breakdown of the funds. Sarsour and fellow activist Tarek El-Messidi said they sent $40,000 to the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in St. Louis, $5,000 to the Waad Hakolel Cemetery in Rochester, New York, and $5,000 to the Chicago Loop Synagogue. Representatives from all three sites confirmed they received the checks.

People hold sign critical of Linda Sarsour as part of an Alt Right protest of Muslim Activist Linda Sarsour on April 25, 2017 in New York City.
Source: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Hikind, Yiannopoulos, alongside conservative provocateur Pamela Geller have also accused Sarsour of being anti-semitic and supporting terrorism. One of their main grievances is Sarsour's association and friendship with Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh. The conservative coalition has referred to Odeh as a convicted terrorist after Israel accused her of bombing a supermarket and killing two college students in Jerusalem in 1969. But according to Jezebel, the Israeli military tribunal convicted her based on a forced confession — one she later rescinded — that included torture and sexual assault. Odeh was one of the women who organized a "Day Without a Woman March."

Sarsour faces a different battle for free speech than Murray and Yiannopoulos, one riddled with false accusations, smear campaigns and xenophobic attacks. And so, the silence from liberal "free speech" pundits, a good number being white or male, prompts a conundrum among their faction: Whose, not what, American freedoms are they defending?


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Sarah A. Harvard

Sarah is a staff writer covering religion, race and politics. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate, The Huffington Post, TeenVogue, and VICE. Send tips and feedback: sharvard@mic.com

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