Statement on Steven Thrasher’s Commencement Address

The AAUP is not solely a faculty organization. It exists to protect the speech of all members of the academic community, and it must speak in defense of student voices, who are among the most vulnerable, and often the most subject to censure from university administrators.

We have chosen to issue a statement about NYU’s graduate commencement ceremony this year because it was marked by an egregious abridgment of student speech rights.

Steven Thrasher, the newly minted Ph.D. who was chosen to deliver the commencement address, included some rousing comments in his speech at the ceremony. They were directed against “racism and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and injustice and attacks on women and attacks on abortion rights in Tel Aviv, in Shanghai, in Abu Dhabi, in New York City, Atlanta, Washington.” He also referred to Donald Trump as a “fascist’ for his anti-immigrant policies. His comments might be considered standard fare at one of the country’s most liberal universities, and indeed these words, and others praising the work of Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, and other pro-BDS voices on campus, were applauded by many in the audience and on the podium.

In the days following the speech, President Hamilton and Dean Harper issued sweeping condemnations of Thrasher’s comments, singling out his mention of the pro-BDS groups, and his calling out of Israeli’s “apartheid” policies. President Hamilton took the opportunity, once again, to declare his opposition to the BDS movement. There was no mention of Thrasher’s remarks about racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, nor did his inflammatory description of Donald Trump seem to cause any offence. All that seemed to matter is that an NYU student had publicly criticized Israel.

We believe that any official rebuke of speech on campus is a grave threat to fundamental tenets of academic freedom, and that the injury is compounded when certain kinds of speech are targeted as inadmissible. Every member of the academic community is bound to respect the right of others to express the full range of opinion, and any effort to pick and choose what is deemed unacceptable should have no place at NYU.

Like many of our colleagues, we were also shocked to learn that the NYU administration insists on prior review of commencement speeches. This practice seems to run counter to the collegial spirit of open inquiry and expression, and there is no reason why commencement addresses should be considered a “special” category of speech that requires prior vetting. It is chilling to imagine that future speakers might resort to self-censorship if they anticipate that their speeches will not pass muster among administrators.

We believe that Steven Thrasher is owed an apology, and that President Hamilton and Dean Harper should take the occasion to assure members of the community that campus speech of all kinds is fully protected at NYU and should never be subject to denunciation by those with the power to retaliate and penalize.

We also believe it is time to retire the punitive tone exhibited by recent statements from the administration regarding campus speech about Middle Eastern affairs. It is widely known and documented that faculty and students who speak out about Palestinian rights routinely receive hate mail and threats (and sometimes, as in the case of SJP-NYU, these are death threats), and they are often targeted by coordinated efforts to destroy their employment status and careers. They have been selected out by this administration for harsh disapproval, and branded as “divisive” or “deplorable.” Instead, they should be defended.

For more than a hundred years, the AAUP has been dedicated to showing that official interdiction of academic speech is damaging to the academic enterprise. We are alarmed by the treatment of Steven Thrasher as it so clearly violates the long-held principles of the organization we represent on campus.

The Executive Committee of the NYU Chapter of the AAUP

   Marie Monaco, President

   Jim Uleman, Vice-president

   Molly Nolan, Secretary

   Anna McCarthy, Treasurer

   Paula Chakravartty, Member-at-large

   Rebecca Karl, Member-at-large

   Vincent Renzi, Member-at-large

   Andrew Ross, Immediate past president