campus controversies

A CUNY Student Was Investigated for Criticizing Israel

A student rally outside CUNY Hunter College. Photo: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On June 1, an announcement was posted to the City University of New York’s Earth and Environmental Sciences listserv advertising Fulbright grants to study in Israel. The next day, Rafael Mutis, a sixth-year Ph.D. student in that department, responded, “Thanks for passing this on, but this is some sick zionist propaganda. Is this a Trump initiative? Maybe there are post docs in Palestine? Free Free Palestine!”

The post provoked exactly the sort of responses one would expect on a listserv full of graduate students with strong opinions on a hot-button subject. Some responses argued Mutis’s email was unwarranted, and that he was overreaching in his use of “zionist,” which sparked a discussion over how far the term should be extended, whether it was fair to use it in that manner, given left-wing Zionist groups that advocate for Palestinian rights, and so on. Much of the listserv thread simply reads like students arguing in the same way they do everywhere else. Parts of it are a bit of a slog.

But naturally, because this is 2018, some of the posts also claimed that Mutis’s use of the term was not only overly broad or inaccurate or offensive, but “triggering” to Jewish people because of the Z-word’s long association, when used negatively or conspiratorially, with genuine anti-Semites like Henry Ford. The concept of microaggressions came up. (Mutis didn’t criticize Jewish people qua Jewish people in the original post, nor in his follow-up responses, and in the course of defending himself, he mentioned that he has Jewish friends whose views on the Israeli-Palestinian mirror his own.)

Things grew increasingly heated. “In the words of social scientists, this is extremely triggering to folks who’s family was SLAUGHTERED in the holocaust. [sic] … So on behalf of this Jew, FUCK YOU,” went one post from an author who noted that she had just returned from touring concentration camps. Another student summed up the thread nicely: “Thanks for the full dramatic reenactment of my family dynamic, colleagues. Really makes me feel at home when I’m away. -[his name] (anti-Zionist, anti-Nazi, pro-BDS, pro-Jewish solidarity).”

Under normal circumstances, once the thread wound down, that would have been that: Some people would have thought Mutis was dancing a bit too close to anti-Semitic tropes by using the term “Zionist” in the way he did, others would have viewed that charge as overblown and an attempt to tamp down criticism of Israel — and just about everyone would have gone about their day a bit more exasperated. That wasn’t what happened, though.

Instead, on June 6, the student who signed off her email with “FUCK YOU” sent an email to Edith Rivera, the chief diversity officer and Title IX coordinator at CUNY’s Graduate Center, to attempt to get Mutis in trouble. After laying out the basics, the complainant wrote, “Rafael and others have equated Fullbright [sic] Israel as being ‘Sick Zionist Propaganda.’ It was explained to them why this is hate speech and that it is offensive and triggering both nicely (by others) and not nicely (by me) and they won’t stop.” At the end of the email, the student explained why, in her view, what happened on the listserv was an act of discrimination: “I can’t find an IT policy that provides guidance for what is appropriate for a list serv. I understand free speech. They were asked to stop using triggering language and continued to do so. But making me feel intimidated and harassed because of my ethnicity/religion intimidating [sic] doesn’t give Jewish students an equal opportunity to receive GC information as the only way to avoid the hate speech is unsubscribe from the list serve that provides critical information in the pursuit of my degree.”

The next day, Rivera responded to the complainant, explaining that she was forwarding her email on to another administrator and providing a link to CUNY’s  “Charge of Discrimination Form.” The complainant subsequently filled it out, alleging that Mutis had committed an act of discrimination based on — as per a checklist — “Race or Color,” “National or Ethnic Origin,” and “Religion/Creed.” (Neither Rivera nor Mutis responded to emails I sent them.)

One thing that has generated complaints from many individuals subjected to Title IX investigations, students and faculty members alike, is the opaqueness of the process. Those accused under the system often aren’t given timely, comprehensive information about the nature of the accusation against them. In Mutis’s case, he was being investigated for possible violations under Title VI, not Title IX, because he was accused, in essence, of contributing to a discriminatory atmosphere against members of a religious or national group (Jews and presumably Israelis) rather than a protected sex class. But Title VI or Title IX, after the complaint was filed, the same now-familiar Kafkaesque story line started to unfold.

According to a letter sent to CUNY by Palestine Legal, the organization representing Mutis (which also provided Intelligencer with all the emails, listserv posts, and other documentation referenced in this story), on June 19 Mutis was asked, via email, to come in for a meeting with Matthew Schoengood, vice-president for student affairs at the Graduate Center. This prompted a back-and-forth over email in which Mutis asked why he was being asked to come in and, after being told it was about the listserv, asked if he had broken any rules. It wasn’t until June 27 that CUNY provided some clarity and acknowledged that yes, Mutis was being investigated. Well, sort of: “I am investigating a complaint and it is important that you meet with me as required by CUNY’s Student Conduct Code,” wrote Schoengood. “There are no pending charges against you, but failure to meet with me may result in such.” (According to Palestine Legal, this was a false claim — the university has no policy stating students can get in trouble simply for refusing to meet with an administrator in response to a complaint.)

On July 10, Mutis finally went in for a meeting with CUNY administrators, accompanied by his attorney, Radhika Sainath of Palestine Legal. Sainath’s account of that meeting, contained in an email she wrote to Stacie Tiongson, one of the CUNY administrators present, is surreal and worth reading:

At the start of the meeting, you mentioned the complaint filed against Mutis and asked Mutis to state his response. I explained that the complaint contained no allegations and asked CUNY to inform Mutis of the allegations against him so that he could respond. You stated that CUNY was not alleging any wrongdoing. You again asked for a response from Mutis. I stated that without any factual allegations, there was nothing to respond to. You then stated that the complainant told you that that Mutis’ initial response to the Fulbright posting was “triggering” and “made her feel unsafe.” You did not say what language the complainant was alleging discriminated against her race, color, religion, national origin or creed. You did not state the complainant’s race, color, religion, national origin or creed.

I asked what CUNY rule or policy Mutis’ email was alleged to violate. You could not cite any rule or policy. I asked if Mutis was being investigated for policies governing listserves. Schoengood said that Mutis was not. I asked what penalties were on the table. You said that no penalties were on the table.

The stance of CUNY administrators toward Mutis, then, can be accurately summed up as: We’re not investigating you, but during this meeting we demanded you attend, do you have a response to the charge, which we haven’t laid out specifically and for which we aren’t weighing punishment, that you harmed a fellow student, in ways we can’t specifically describe, by writing and publishing a brief listserv post? Given this lunacy, it’s worth asking what would have happened if Mutis had attended the meeting without an attorney willing to push back on his behalf. What would he have said that could have caused him further trouble? What would he have agreed to to make this threatening situation go away?

In the end, after a nearly three-month investigation that stretched through the summer, Mutis got an email from CUNY clearing him of the — scare quotes seem appropriate here — “charges” against him:

The rose-colored view here is that this system “worked,” in a certain sense. But on the other hand, anyone with even the faintest understanding of the First Amendment could have taken a swift look at the listserv exchange and said, “No, CUNY can’t investigate him for that.” CUNY is a public university, and public universities must abide by the First Amendment when it comes to these sorts of disciplinary systems. Terms like “hate speech” and “triggers” and “microaggressions” mean nothing to the First Amendment. Mutis has an absolute First Amendment right to refer to a Fulbright advertisement for its Israel offerings as “sick zionist propaganda.” Personally, I think that was a needlessly provocative response. But that doesn’t matter. Free speech rights are free speech rights. (On public university campuses, this protection technically extends even to racial slurs and the like, as the former ACLU staffers quoted in this story about a University of Alabama hate-speech suspension note. Whether a student would actually legally challenge a suspension in such an extreme case is another matter.)

It’s worth noting how claims of harm got weaponized here. In the real world, of course, if I’m offended by your use or interpretation of the word Zionist, I can’t call the police to have you investigated. That would be ridiculous — that’s what happens in authoritarian countries. But the Title VI/IX system, as many universities interpret and administer it, really does give students mad or offended about a political disagreement a hotline with which to narc on their neighbors, as it were.

It’s astounding, and worrying, to think about the time and money a public university spent on what should have been a two-sentence response to the complainant: “I’m sorry to hear you were hurt by the tenor the conversation on the listserv. Unfortunately, CUNY is bound by law to respect the First Amendment, and with a few extremely narrowly defined exceptions, that includes statements others find offensive or hurtful.”

A CUNY Student Was Investigated for Criticizing Israel