a profile sketch of activist Linda Sarsour

Where Is the Free Speech Outrage for Linda Sarsour?

Last month, Women’s March Co-Chair and anti-Islamophobia activist Linda Sarsour was invited to give a commencement speech to graduates at the City University of New York School of Public Health. But now, local politicians are pressuring the school to withdraw the invitation because of Sarsour’s left-wing politics.

The campaign to disinvite Sarsour was launched by state Assemblyman Dov Hikind (who was previously best known for wearing blackface to a party in 2013). Hikind, along with several other local politicians, are trying to bully CUNY into cancelling Sarsour’s speech because of her pro-Palestinian advocacy and opposition to Zionism — in other words, because of her controversial politics.

Sound familiar?

These days, conservative and liberal opinion writers only seem to agree on one thing: college students and their “liberal intolerance” are out of control. The New York Times, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, the Weekly Standard, CNN, and many, many others have allocated a lot of space to the question of campus speech at very elite universities. Most of this has been from commentators concerned that student protests against right-wing speakers like Charles Murray and Ann Coulter undermine First Amendment principles. Fair enough. Free speech is an important, foundational democratic value.

But where is that same outrage for Linda Sarsour? Where is that outcry when politicians launch a vicious, Islamaphobic smear campaign against Sarsour, falsely painting her as a supporter of terrorism?

As of writing, no one has penned a defense of Sarsour’s free speech in the opinion columns of the New York Times.

The Atlantic? Nothing yet.

The self-appointed defenders of the First Amendment at the New York Post? Nada.

The Federalist — the publication for Very Serious Conservative Intellectuals — covered every detail of an Ann Coulter speech cancelled by Berkeley, but somehow haven’t found space for Sarsour. Were they too busy writing about friendzoning?

As Demos’ Sean McElwee points out, influential political journalists like Jacob Weisberg, Peter Beinart, and Jonathan Chait have been notably silent about Linda Sarsour. All three defended Charles Murray after student protesters prevented him, a man the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a White Nationalist, from speaking at Middlebury.

Somehow lefty college students who protest conservative speakers are a threat to democracy itself — but when right-wing politicians (who wield actual state power!) seek to suppress the voices of left-wing activists, it barely merits a tweet.

The right controls the White House, both branches of Congress, and most state houses. There is no honest reading of American politics in which Ann Coulter’s philosophy of white supremacy is more at risk of being silenced than the immigrant and Muslim-American communities Sarsour has spoken out on behalf of. There is no fair reading of either campus or national politics in which Coulter’s speech needs to be courageously defended against popular opinion, but Sarsour’s does not.

The selective defense of free-speech suggests that at least for some, it’s not about a principled defense of the First Amendment after all. It’s a one-way outrage that only intervenes on behalf of the already powerful, and in opposition to young people seeking to change the status quo.

While opinion writers have been slow to come to Sarsour’s defense, New Yorkers rallied to support her. Advocacy groups, progressive politicians, CUNY students, and the New York Civil Liberties Union joined a press conference in support of her right to speak. Jewish community groups and faith leaders have pushed back against Hikind’s Islamophobic caricature of Sarsour as anti-Semitic, pointing to her years of inter-faith advocacy and her work to raise $100,000 to repair a Jewish cemetery desecrated by the alt-right. Many more have pledged their support using the viral #IStandWithLinda hashtag on twitter.

As for Sarsour, she spoke at the New York Women’s Foundation 30th Anniversary Breakfast this week, and had this to say:

I will not be intimidated. I will not be silenced. I am unapologetically Muslim, unapologetically Palestinian-American, unapologetically from Brooklyn, and unapologetically a member of the resistance… and we women of color will not leave anyone behind.

To his credit, CUNY Chancellor James Milliken affirmed in a statement that disinviting Sarsour would conflict with the principles of academic freedom. The school should stand strong — and the free speech brigade should stand up. Maybe they could learn a thing or two about boldly defending everyone’s rights, without exception, from Linda Sarsour.

Header image via ACLU.

Sejal Singh is a columnist at Feministing, an LGBTQ rights activist, and Policy Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national campaign to end gender-based violence in schools. She is a frequent speaker on civil rights in education and violence against women. Her views are her own.

Sejal Singh is a columnist at Feministing.

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