Victory: CUNY Investigation Clears Student Over Email Criticizing Israel

CUNY Graduate Center. David Shankbone/WikiCommons.

CUNY Graduate Center. David Shankbone/WikiCommons.

After a nearly three-month investigation, the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center dismissed a complaint seeking to punish doctoral student Rafael Mutis for comments critical of Israel made in response to an email advertising a Fulbright fellowship in Israel on a student listserve.

“I’m glad CUNY agreed that I have the right to say that Israel is not a democracy and that it doesn’t respect the rights of Palestinians,” said Mutis, a sixth-year doctoral student in Earth and Environmental Sciences. “But this whole process has been emotionally taxing. It really hung over my head this summer while I was trying to write my dissertation.”

The June 1 fellowship announcement sent to the Earth and Environmental Sciences listserve stated that Israel “embraces people of all religions, cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities” and that it is “surrounded by the extraordinary hospitality embedded in middle-eastern culture [sic].” In response, Mutis wrote: “Thanks for passing this on, but this is some sick zionist propaganda.  Is this a Trump initiative? Maybe there are post docs in Palestine? Free Free Palestine!”

A debate ensued among listserve members about the meaning of the political ideology of Zionism, Israel’s recent killing of Palestinian protesters in Gaza and Israel’s occupation, and abusive language was used toward Mutis. Weeks later, Mutis learned he was under investigation based on a listserve member’s charge of discrimination.

Palestine Legal wrote CUNY on July 13 warning that punishing Mutis would violate the First Amendment, which requires public colleges to protect free speech. The letter demanded that CUNY dismiss the complaint immediately, explaining that the investigation itself had a chilling impact on campus speech.

On August 24, Edith Rivera, CUNY’s Chief Diversity Officer/Title IX Coordinator wrote Mutis that CUNY found “no basis” for the complaint. She affirmed that Mutis’ comments and the ensuing debate were protected by the First Amendment.

“CUNY rightly recognized that emails supporting Palestinian human rights are protected by the First Amendment,” said Radhika Sainath, Senior Staff Attorney with Palestine Legal, who represented Mutis during the investigation. “Still, there was no need for such a prolonged investigation – the complaint should’ve been dismissed on its face.”