1st Amendment Optional?
NYU Blackballs Student Protesters for Handing Out Flyers
Two NYU students say officials intimidated and censored them after they tried to peacefully hand out flyers—the latest free-speech snafu for the prestigious university.
Two New York University students say officials called security to intimidate them as they were quietly distributing flyers—then demanded one of them withdraw a formal complaint he made about the incident, The Daily Beast has learned. It’s just the latest free-speech crackdown at NYU, which has come under fire in recent months for suppression across its campuses.
Ashwin Gopi, a Ph.D. student at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, had been distributing flyers to shed light on educational consultants who snag hefty commissions for recruiting international students—many of whom are considered cash cows for American colleges.
Along with Sara Duvisac, a Ph.D. student in sociology at NYU’s main campus, and Patrick Gallagher, an organizer with the graduate student workers’ union, Gopi showed up at a February faculty event—dedicated to enrollment trends within NYU Poly’s student population from India—to hand out the leaflets. The flyers argued that Poly should spend less on attracting international students and more on faculty and research.
All three insist they were standing at the end of a corridor, peacefully handing out the documents, when the two Ph.D. students found themselves “detained” by security personnel.
A receptionist told them they weren’t allowed to hand out flyers because the building—which houses the dean’s office and other administrative offices—was “private property,” Gopi said. The receptionist guided the students to her desk, and three security guards arrived to make copies of their student and state IDs. The personnel also filed incident reports against the students, Gopi and Duvisac told The Daily Beast.
“Their reaction was so heavy-handed,” said Gallagher, who took photos of the incident. “We were essentially being detained.”
Kathleen Hamilton, a spokeswoman for NYU Poly, called the allegations “inaccurate and misleading, as well as disturbing.” In an email to The Daily Beast, Hamilton said the students had failed to properly identify themselves—a charge Gopi denies—and “misrepresented themselves to the receptionist, saying they were there for the meeting.”
She said attendees were distracted by the students’ presence outside a glass-walled conference room. (The students say they were far from the room, stood silently, and didn't engage anyone in conversation.) “One of the administrators … called campus security to ensure we were following NYU policy and to make sure that the two visitors had the right to be here, since they didn’t show ID as required,” Hamilton continued. “The exchange was cordial.”
But Gopi says the censorship didn’t stop with the flyers. Days before the event, Brendon Troy, the associate director of admissions, deleted Gopi’s comments on international enrollment from a school Facebook page. When Gopi commented again—this time against online censorship—Troy removed that post, too. In a Facebook message to Gopi, Troy called his posts “off topic.”
After security blocked him from handing out flyers, Gopi wrote to Anita Farrington, associate dean of student affairs, and Thomas Grace, NYU’s director of community standards and compliance, describing the incident and asking if he could provide a counter-narrative to the incident report.
Both suggested he write to NYU Poly President and Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan, and Chief of Staff and Associate Dean Brad Penuel, to lodge a complaint.
“I am not interested in filing a formal complaint against anyone because I’m not sure if what happened … was anyone’s fault,” Gopi wrote in a March 2 email to Farrington. “Rather, there is a lot of ambiguity over the university’s policy on free speech, protest, and dissent.”
An administrator eventually told Gopi that no university policy was violated and that he should withdraw his complaint to the dean and delete social media posts about the incident.
The 26-year-old student from India says he never received answers on what he did wrong. “They censored me when I was trying to talk about censorship,” Gopi said. “They won, and I am back to square one.
“The issue of censorship here is particularly weird here since I was only trying to spread awareness about unethical practices that … hurt both the university and the students,” he added. “This is why I felt very surprised when I wasn’t allowed to talk about it.”
The incident comes on the heels of several other high-profile flaps over free speech on NYU campuses around the world. In March, Andrew Ross, an outspoken professor at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, was barred from boarding a plane to the United Arab Emirates. Ross had been critical of migrant worker exploitation in the country—and of the campus itself for being funded by the UAE monarchy.
Meanwhile, a private eye was digging for dirt on Ross from fellow professors, The New York Times reported. The investigator wouldn’t disclose who she was working for but did mention the university’s president was facing criticism over NYU's Emirates partnership.
On Thursday, a damning report bolstered Ross’s critiques. A Nardello & Co. probe revealed poor conditions for migrant workers at NYU Abu Dhabi—including forced overtime, overcrowded housing, and the falsification of payroll documents so monitors believed workers made a $325 monthly salary, instead of an actual take-home of $217.
And at NYU School of Law, students say the NYU faculty is targeting them after signing a statement of “no confidence” in Harold Koh, a former State Department hand who helped usher in President Obama’s drone program. Koh is now teaching international human-rights law.
More than 300 people signed the petition, which launched this month, but some students asked for their names to be concealed after a backlash from their own professors and fellow legal experts.
Professor Ryan Goodman emailed 31 signatories, including some of his own students, and urged them to withdraw their names. He said doing so would “reflect well on us as a community,” student organizers reported. (UPDATE: The original version of this article stated that Professor Goodman emailed all the signatories; that is incorrect, he emailed 31 of the signatories. The Daily Beast regrets this error.)
Trevor Morrison, dean of the law school, told his first-year constitutional law students that the petition was a “smear” campaign and “wholly inaccurate.” (UPDATE: The original version of this article stated that Professor Morrison urged his students to remove their names; The Daily Beast has amended to more accurately reflect Dean Morrison's statement to the class.)
“To argue that [the petition] was not grounded in facts, all sent his students a clear message: withhold support,” one organizer told The Daily Beast. "Afterwards, two of his students did indeed email me to ask that their signatures be removed.”
Two professors—who are current and former State Department employees—are even organizing a petition against the students’ effort and circulating it on the NYU Law School listserv.
In an April 13 email, NYU business professor Michael Posner and Sarah Cleveland of Columbia University ask people to sign their “open letter expressing our support for Harold in the face of these attacks.” The pro-Koh petition was even signed by NYU President John Sexton.
“In the immediate aftermath of the petition, many students felt intimidated and scared,” Lisa Sangoi, a law student and petition organizer, told The Daily Beast. “We had a period of really questioning how far we can take this effort and what kind of freedom we have to do so.”
Still, university watchdogs say free expression has long taken a hit.
In 2013, editors with the Washington Square News were pressured by administrators to change a column headline from “Sexton, Lipton should resign in 2013” to “Sexton, Lipton stray from NYU vision,” according to a student who worked at the paper.
(UPDATE: After this piece was published, Jonathon Dornbush, former WSN editor, denied he was pressured. “The title change actually came as a result of an entirely internal decision,” he said, adding that the writer requested a headline change to “reflect the entirety of the piece.”
Still, one staffer told The Daily Beast that editors had promised to “restore the relationship with the administration.” “They created an environment in which editors are scared they self-censor,” the student said. “I was concerned about what kind of precedent we were setting."
The student columnists were critical of NYU President Sexton and board of trustees chair Martin Lipton for a lack of transparency and shared governance with students and faculty.
After the essay was published, NYU’s spokesman, John Beckman, publicly bashed the students’ work in online comments.