BREAKING: ACLU President Deborah Archer Withdraws from CUNY Law Graduation Commencement Speech in Solidarity with Students

Both Invited CUNY Law Commencement Speakers Withdrew after Learning of Ban on Student Commencement Speakers Reflecting Targeted Censorship of Palestinian Rights Advocacy During Ongoing Genocide of Palestinians

Queens, N.Y. — The two invited speakers for the commencement ceremony of the City University of New York School of Law (“CUNY Law”), scheduled to take place at the Apollo Theater on May 23, 2024, have both withdrawn: Deborah Archer, President of the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), and Muhammad Faridi, a 2007 alumnus of CUNY Law and partner at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler. Their withdrawals came within days of a First Amendment lawsuit filed by CUNY Law students about the repression of student speech at their graduations as of this year.

In an email to the CUNY Law administration and student activists, Deborah Archer stated, “It is with profound regret that I write to inform you of my decision to withdraw as a speaker at the law school’s 2024 commencement ceremony. I cannot, as a leader of the nation’s oldest guardian of free expression, participate in an event in which students believe that their voices are being excluded. For decades, CUNY Law School has been a beacon of the legal community, representing our profession’s highest values of social justice and human rights. I have been privileged to work with, and learn from, many CUNY faculty and students, and I was deeply honored to be invited to address this year’s graduates. But I feel compelled to decline the invitation under the circumstances.” Her colleague Jamil Dakwar, Director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program, subsequently tweeted about her decision, with the tweet getting over 142,000 views to date.

The First Amendment lawsuit against CUNY alleges the unlawful denial of access to two customs for commencement: student-elected speakers and live-streaming/recording by CUNY. The plaintiffs allege that CUNY terminated these customs to punish and chill speech supportive of Palestinian freedom, in reaction to the pro-Palestine speeches of the prior two student commencement speakers and to the persistent on-campus activism of the plaintiffs and their peers this year in support of Palestinian lives and for an end to Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

CUNY not only failed to stand by the free-speech rights of the Arab, Muslim women who were the student commencement speakers at the last two law-school commencements but publicly denounced the 2023 speaker, generating vocal defense and support of her from her peers, law school faculty, Jewish Voice for Peace, and at least thirteen civil rights and social justice organizations. The New York City Bar Association publicly criticized CUNY for “chilling free speech and debate among law students.” 

In September 2023, CUNY Law quietly announced the removal of the student-speaker platform from this year’s commencement ceremony, before the start of the Israeli government’s ongoing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. Since then, CUNY Law students have sought the custom’s reinstatement in parallel with and as part of their persistent on-campus activism this year in support of Palestinian lives. 

CUNY Law faculty joined their ranks by passing two resolutions at their April 2024 faculty meeting: one supporting an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the genocide of Palestinians by the Israeli government with U.S. complicity and the other supporting the reinstatement of the student-speaker platform at the law-school’s commencement. 

Student activism at CUNY Law this year has been met with anti-Palestinian discrimination and repression, leading to the filing of a related complaint to the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education (“OCR”). OCR has since decided to open a related investigation into the law school, along with investigations into two other CUNY campuses subject to separate complaints of anti-Palestinian discrimination and repression: Queens College and Hunter College. 

The opening of the investigations is timely, in light of the recent decision of the CUNY Chancellor to send police to arrest peaceful protestors at the Gaza Solidarity Encampment at the City College of New York (“CCNY”). The Chancellor’s decision resulted in violent mass arrests of and severe injuries to students, felony charges against some of them, and a bizarre display involving a group of NYPD officers performatively hoisting an American flag up a flagpole in what was, at best, a display of misguided patriotism, and, at worst, a show of anti-Palestinian animus.

The ban on student speakers at CUNY Law’s graduation is one piece of a much larger problem of anti-Palestinian discrimination and repression at CUNY and is part of a growing and national pattern of repressing student speech supportive of Palestinian freedom. This discrimination and repression has escalated dramatically since the beginning of Israel’s now seven-month-long genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza—reflected in the widespread, recent police brutality and criminalization of student activism for Palestinian lives across U.S. campuses. 

In this climate of extreme anti-Palestinian discrimination and repression, Archer and Faridi are not alone in their decisions to withdraw as invited speakers from commencements this spring.  Most recently, Colson Whitehead has withdrawn as an invited speaker at the May 18 commencement of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Last month, C Pam Zhang and Safiya U. Noble withdrew from speaking at the University of Southern California commencement. And student activists at the University of Vermont successfully negotiated the removal of the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield from their commencement, citing it as one of their Gaza Solidarity Encampment’s demands after she vetoed resolutions calling for a ceasefire in Gaza on three separate occasions.


Muslim Advocates is a national social-justice, legal-advocacy, and educational organization that works with and for Muslim and other historically marginalized communities to build community power, fight systemic oppression, and demand shared well-being.