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July 2, 2021 2:40 pm

CUNY Law School Dean Defends ‘Free Speech Rights’ of Pro-Palestinian Activist at Center of IDF Sweatshirt Row

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

CUNY School of Law in New York City. Photo: Evulaj90 / Wikimedia Commons

The Dean of the City University of New York School of Law spoke out on Wednesday to defend the “free speech rights” of Nerdeen Kiswani, a student and pro-Palestinian activist who has previously drawn controversy over a video in which she appeared to threaten to set fire to a man wearing an IDF sweatshirt.

In a statement, Interim Dean and Professor Eduardo R.C. Capulong said school officials “have found no cause to discipline” Nerdeen Kiswani, a law student who founded the NYC-based Palestinian activist group Within Our Lifetime.

“‘Criticism of Israel is protected speech’ and should not be tarred as antisemitic,” Capulong said, citing a 2016 report by the CUNY Board of Trustees. “The Law School supports the free speech rights of Nerdeen Kiswani, other Palestinian students, and their Jewish and non-Jewish allies, who have been vilified for their activism.”

“CUNY Law is a diverse community with differing political beliefs,” he continued. “But we are united in opposing all forms of racism, including anti-Palestinianism, antisemitism, and Islamophobia; we condemn anti-Palestinian, antisemitic, Islamophobic, and other racist violence; we recognize and respect one another’s right to be a part of our community; and we have found no cause to discipline Ms. Kiswani, who remains in good standing with our institution.”

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In September, a video emerged online appearing to show Kiswani holding a flaming lighter near the stomach of a man wearing a sweatshirt displaying the logo of the Israeli military, and saying “I hate your shirt. I’m gonna set it on fire. I’m serious!”

The circumstances of the film, including the identity of the man and whether the video was in fact genuine, were unclear.

The school initially condemned the incident, saying, “CUNY School of Law stands against hate and antisemitism.”

But after a backlash, then-Dean Mary Lu Bilek apologized for the school’s denunciation, saying that Kiswani had simply “exercised her First Amendment right to express her opinion.”

The Law School’s Wednesday statement came amid a “#WeStandWithNerdeen” campaign promoted by the CUNY Law School Student Government, which included a petition calling on the institution to publicly support Kiswani.

“By continuing to be a bystander to the racist smears directed at Nerdeen, CUNY School of Law lends this institution to the cause of denying and continuing the occupation of Palestine and the genocide of the people of Palestine and has implicated itself in actively perpetuating violence against its own student,” the petition said.

Kiswani celebrated Capulong’s statement in an Instagram post on Thursday, thanking efforts by the CUNY Law Student Government, Jewish Law Students Association, and CUNY Law Students for Justice in Palestine.

“I appreciate the University standing with me as their student, as they always should have,” she said. “However, it cannot be and is not just about me.”

She continued, “We also have to acknowledge what is happening in Palestine, how Palestinians are being systematically subjected to genocide and colonization, especially during such an escalated moment. Zionist colonial violence must be condemned. It’s not just an issue of free speech, we must also firmly stand against the oppression of the Palestinian people.”

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