Threats Against Commencement Speakers Raise Alarm for Deterioration of Discourse on U.S. University Campuses
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NEW YORK—Death threats against Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor who criticized Trump in a speech to graduates and demands that activist Linda Sarsour be disinvited as a commencement speaker at the City University of New York (CUNY) warn of deteriorating respect for the peaceful expression of opinion on U.S. university campuses, PEN America said in a statement today.
Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor delivered a May 20 commencement address to graduates at Hampshire College sharply critical of President Trump, calling him a “racist, sexist megalomaniac.” Fox News reported critically on these remarks, calling the speech an “anti-POTUS tirade.” Prof. Taylor says she has since received numerous death threats and warnings of physical harm. In the wake of the racially-motivated murders of Richard Collins III in College Park and of two men attempting to intervene against a white supremacist menacing two young women on public transportation in Portland, Oregon, Prof. Taylor said she feared for her safety and cancelled planned speaking events at Seattle’s Town Hall and the University of California-San Diego.
Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist and organizer of the Women’s March on Washington, also received numerous threats after it was announced that she would speak at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health commencement. New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind led a campaign to pressure CUNY to disinvite Sarsour because of her views on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The CUNY School of Public Health’s president has defended the school’s decision and several Jewish leaders, including several who disagree with her positions, have spoken up for her right to speak. Sarsour’s address is slated to go forward this evening.
“The reprehensible threats against Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and the pressure to disinvite Linda Sarsour demonstrate that intolerance for offensive or even opposing viewpoints is not limited to either the right or the left,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America. “While anyone is free to vociferously dispute these speakers’ points of view, crossing the line into trying to silence their speech, especially through threats of violence, chills not only their expression but that of all those who hold views that might be considered a provocation.”
PEN America detailed a set of guidelines relating to questions of free speech on campus, including invitations to controversial campus speakers and protests, in “The PEN America Principles on Campus Speech” which form part of PEN America’s 2016 report And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion and Free Speech at American Universities.
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.