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The month of May is always an exciting time for new graduates across the country, and this year, it is fair to say students at the City University of New York School of Law had a lively send-off at their commencement ceremony a few weeks ago.
The words of CUNY Law graduate Fatima Mousa Mohammed — elected by her fellow students to give the commencement speech at their graduation on May 12 — quickly permeated beyond the walls of the Queens College auditorium serving as the chosen graduation venue for the public law school, founded in 1983. The school, which is also my alma mater (I graduated in 2016), has emphasized its mission to educate students with the purpose of forging careers in social justice, with many of its alumni going on to become pro bono attorneys, public defenders, and civil rights lawyers.
Indeed, Mohammed seemed to channel these very ideals in her speech.
“Like many of you, I chose CUNY School of Law for its articulated mission to be ‘law in the services of human needs,”” she said. “We joined this institution to be equipped with the necessary legal skills to protect our communities.” Addressing her class of more than 200 graduating students, she said she foresaw her fellow classmates utilizing the law to protect members of often oppressed sectors of society, including immigrants, tenants, and those who have had their civil rights abridged.
“I see future lawyers who will work to make this world a better place,” she said. “I see a class to be rejoiced.”
Instead of prompting joy, however, Mohammed’s speech has since gone viral and received national news coverage. While Mohammed highlighted some of the most pressing issues in the country — including men of color being targeted at Rikers Island, Palestinian political prisoners, and refugees at the southern U.S. border — it was her comments about the military, police, New York politicians, and Israel that have since gained national attention.
In her speech, Mohammed implored her fellow graduates to channel their anger regarding these problems for good.
“May it be the fuel for the fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism, and Zionism around the world,” she said.
But Mohammed’s comments condemning CUNY itself and the legal system for supporting the “fascist” NYPD and the military, as well as politicians such as Mayor Eric Adams and Senator Chuck Schumer for “dignifying” the death of Jordan Neely — who was killed last month on the Manhattan subway by ex-marine Daniel Penny — have prompted critics to decry her address as “dangerous,” “hate speech,” and “antisemitic.”
The reactions have been swift.
“We cannot allow words of negativity and divisiveness to be the only ones our students hear,” Adams tweeted, adding praise for members of the military, including his uncle who died while serving in Vietnam. The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York tweeted that the speech was “incendiary anti-Israel propaganda,” a post that the New York/New Jersey chapter of the Anti-Defamation League — a Jewish organization specializing in civil rights law — re-tweeted, claiming that it was “appalled to see such as an egregious display of hostility toward ‘Zionists’ (which is how many Jews see themselves).”
Even CUNY’s chancellor and board of trustees released a statement deeming Mohammed’s address as “hate speech” and “hurtful to the entire CUNY community.”
Mohammed, meanwhile, has reportedly received death threats and has become the target of intense online criticism, remarks, and commentary — but she is not without her supporters.
Jewish groups such as the New York City chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace disagreed that Mohammed’s speech was antisemitic, and the CUNY School of Law Jewish Students Association tweeted that it was “proud to stand in solidarity” with Mohammed. It has been reported that CUNY School of Law had removed Mohammed’s speech from its official YouTube page, but it was uploaded again after criticism from Mohammed’s supporters began to surface.
As of Thursday, the speech could still be seen in full on the law school’s official YouTube page, in its 2023 commencement video.
The reaction to the speech has extended beyond Mohammed herself, with politicians calling to withdraw funding of CUNY Law, which receives a considerable amount of financial support from grants, federal government contracts, and donations. Some members of Congress have even introduced legislation to support the withdrawal of such funding.
Hate Speech v. Free Speech
Amidst the constant coverage, social media opinions, and online commentary, Mohammed’s speech has sparked a broader question of where the dividing line is between hate speech and free speech.
While case law precedent has provided some insight into this, “hate speech” is not technically a defined legal term in the U.S. The United Nations, meanwhile, defines it as speech inciting dangerous actions including discrimination, hostility, and violence.
Now that people are able to provide their opinions and disseminate them in an instant through social media, YouTube, and other platforms — and others are free to post their takes on such statements — questions of how speech should be classified or protected in the U.S. are more relevant than ever. Those questions may include: What exactly constitutes hate speech? How far does the protection of free speech go? And as technology and social media advances continue to expand, what does the future hold for people expressing their viewpoints at the drop of a hat?
Free speech has always been afforded protection by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and it enables Americans to express their opinions without enduring government censorship, intrusion, or control. Throughout the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has further defined what freedom of speech specifically enables Americans to do, including: contributing money to political campaigns, engaging in symbolic speech such as burning the American flag, and protesting U.S. war efforts by wearing black armbands.
Not all forms of expressive speech are free, however. The Supreme Court has opined that advocating for illegal drug use at a school-sponsored events, inciting imminent unlawful action, and lewd speech at school assemblies do not qualify for First Amendment protection.
Many critics of Mohammed’s speech pointed to the statements regarding Israel and Palestine as examples of hate speech. Since “hate speech” isn’t technically defined as a legal concept in the U.S., any legal action taken against Mohammed would likely be based in an argument that her criticism of a territory — in this case, Israel — amounts to inciting violence against that place and a particular group of people, specifically Jewish people. While the verdict is still out in the court of public opinion regarding Mohammed, she has thus far not been subject to any legal action regarding her comments and therefore no judicial proceeding has been held to provide the ultimate answer as to where her comments fall.
The Future of Freedom of Speech
While opinions and commentary are still emerging in regard to Mohammed’s words, the response to her speech also begs the larger question of how far freedom of speech can be extended in the ways we consume and disseminate information. In 2023, people can decide how and what statements they choose to share with the world through a variety of social media platforms, including Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, as well as video-sharing websites such as YouTube.
Beyond that, even if a person isn’t taking to social media to share their own words, bystanders often use their phones or other devices to film or record certain statements made by others, and then post those recordings on various platforms. Even though social media is a relatively novel concept compared to the centuries-old rhetoric of freedom of speech, many media entities have created their own policies regarding what their users can and cannot say. While the First Amendment protects individuals from government censorship, social media platforms have opted, in varying degrees, to prevent people from posting hate speech that offends or attacks people on the basis of their race, ethnicity, national origin, and other categories; misinformation; and harassment.
Different social media entities vary as to what commentary is flagged as hate speech, yet the U.S. may need to brace itself soon for a uniform set of laws regarding what type of commentary is allowed by users online. In April of this year, the Supreme Court said that it will decide whether public officials can block critics from commenting on their social media accounts, an issue that had previously arisen in the context of former President Donald Trump and his activity on Twitter.
In the meantime, although most social media platforms lay out their comment policies pretty clearly, oftentimes if a user posts something that is flagged by others as offensive, the platform will automatically remove the content out of an abundance of caution. Many argue that these actions enable companies to remove or censor speech before an examination has even been rendered as to whether the speech is actually offensive, while others argue it makes the internet a safer place, particularly for marginalized groups.
Wherever users’ opinions may fall, many can expect more clarity to be provided by the Supreme Court when it takes up the decision regarding social media commentary this year.
Mohammed’s speech is just one of many examples as to how freedom of speech has become a central topic across all arenas and professions, whether it be politics, law, or social media. While the aftermath of her commentary continues to play out online, many are hoping for more of a consolidated answer from the judicial system. As of now, the question of how — and if — the First Amendment is violated based on social media commentary and the blocking thereof has divided lower courts. While many Americans await further rulings regarding these questions, it is clear many more will continue to challenge the current parameters of free speech by speaking their mind freely — and that more pushback against the status quo of such laws is on the horizon.
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