(NEW YORK)— PEN America said today no lawmaker has the right to defund a University for protected speech following controversial remarks by a student graduation speaker at the City University of New York that sparked a lawmaker’s call to withdraw funding.

The May 12 speech, given by a student at CUNY Law School’s commencement ceremony, included stark criticisms of the state of Israel, as well as of the New York Police Department. After a fierce backlash, Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., tweeted: “This is exactly why I am finalizing legislation to strip universities of their funding if they engage in and promote anti-semitism. CUNY should be ashamed of itself — and should lose any federal funds it currently receives.”

The CUNY Board of Trustees and Chancellor also released a statement that incorrectly condemned the speech as unprotected and “hate speech.”

The speaker, Fatima Mousa Mohammed, was selected by the 2023 class to speak at the ceremony.

The CUNY Jewish Law Student Association has vocally supported the student speaker.

In response, Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, released the following statement:

“Lawmakers have absolutely no right to threaten University funding based on speech they disagree with. The speaker’s comments were clearly protected under the First Amendment and even if it was speech that some found offensive, that cannot be grounds for retaliation against the speaker or the institution. Universities must be places where ideas can flow freely, especially political commentary. For an elected official to label any criticism of governments, police forces, or militaries as “hate speech” and threaten institutional funding casts a pall over political discourse and threatens to undermine essential democratic principles. It is concerning to consider the chilling effect this campaign to defund CUNY may have on campus discourse.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057