In February 2016, a small group of progressive students interrupted a faculty meeting at Brooklyn College with a host of demands, including a return to free and open admissions, more full-time faculty members of color, and an end to the presence of undercover cops on campus. The school, which is part of the New York’s public-university system, has nurtured generations of city residents from immigrant and working-class backgrounds, including many young people from the neighboring black and Jewish communities. No one expected the brief “mic check” to reverberate so far from the leafy grounds of Brooklyn College campus.
But it did. Shortly after the interruption, New York City Assemblyman Dov Hikind issued a press release stating that the meeting had left attending faculty member in fear and falsely alleging that one student had called the Faculty Council chair, Professor Yedidyah Langsam, a “Zionist pig.” The press picked up the story. “‘Jew haters’ spread fear at CUNY Colleges,” read a headline at the New York Post.
The Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America, and even the New York State Senate lambasted the young activists and urged Brooklyn College to take action. And the school did. Not long after the action, a handful of the participating students were called in for an investigation. Two of these students were Sarah Aly and Tom DeAngelis. Both insisted that they had not made any anti-Semitic remarks. The school offered them a settlement for the alleged disciplinary infractions, but refused to release a statement clearing Aly and DeAngelis of hateful speech. As a result, Aly and DeAngelis said, they were forced to go before a disciplinary committee and face possible expulsion in order to clear their names.
Aly and DeAngelis were both Brooklyn College seniors with impressive academic records and plans to pursue graduate school. They were also leaders of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and sought to raise awareness on campus about the human-rights violations committed by Israel against the Palestinian people. For about three months before the hearing, the two young activists lived in a kind of limbo, worrying that their futures were at stake.
On May 20, after a grueling full-day hearing, Aly and DeAngelis were “convicted” of only one of the four charges—none of which related to anti-Semitic speech. For failing to comply with “lawful directions issued by representatives of the university/college,” Aly and DeAngelis received merely an admonition. The next month, Brooklyn College issued a press release acknowledging what Aly and DeAngelis had been saying all along, that they had never said the hateful things of which they had been accused.
The students, the press release stated, “faced related charges to the disruption of the Faculty Council meeting, not to the content of their speech, because it was their disruptive conduct that violated University policies and rules.” The statement also acknowledged that, “Contrary to allegations reported to the media, no witness heard the phrase ‘Zionist pig.’”