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CUNY Law students sue their school over changes to graduation ceremony. Here's why they are upset.

CUNY Law students sue their school over changes to graduation ceremony
CUNY Law students sue their school over changes to graduation ceremony 03:18

NEW YORK -- Eight City University of New York law students who are set to graduate Thursday are engaging in a lawsuit against their school over changes to this year's commencement ceremony they say will stifle free speech.

It comes after almost two years of disagreements surrounding the annual event. 

CBS New York spoke to both sides of the dispute on Wednesday.

Students say they are being silenced  

The windows of the CUNY School of Law are lined with graduation balloons, but a celebration is not top of mind for Eric Horowitz and Nusayba Hammad.

"I'm very frustrated," Horowitz said.

"I feel angry, frustrated and deeply sad," Hammad said.

The students' lawsuit says CUNY Law decided in September, before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, that unlike past years, there would be no student-elected speaker at this year's graduation. The students say the decision was in response to speeches students gave the past two years, including a 2023 graduate who said last May, "Israel continues to indiscriminately reign bullets and bombs on worshipers."

"They want to do everything in their power to silence student advocacy. They are terrified that we once again are gonna have the audacity to say that Palestinians should be free," Hammad said.

Mayor Eric Adams later posted on X, formerly Twitter, about "negativity and divisiveness" in that 2023 speech, which also criticized him and the city for issues unrelated to Palestine.

Students say the school also decided not to live-stream this year's ceremony.

Students plan to protest in their own way  

Horowitz and Hammad, who have protested in support of Palestinians, are accusing CUNY Law of stifling student speech to avoid political backlash.

School officials say they do plan to feature student-selected speakers at an awards night celebrating graduates Wednesday.

"I have close to a dozen friends who have lost 15-plus family members in Gaza," Hammad said.

Hammad said she plans on speaking out in other ways, like walking across the stage with names of Palestinians killed during the war on her cap.

"Their grandmothers, their aunts, their cousins, their uncles," Hammad said.

So who will be allowed to speak?  

A spokesperson for CUNY Law sent CBS New York a statement saying it doesn't comment on pending litigation and that it is committed to fighting discrimination.

Dean, Sudha Setty, also sent a statement congratulating graduates and saying, "The public controversy surrounding graduations and the protests we are seeing around the country should not overshadow their accomplishments - the world needs more lawyers who serve the public interest." 

The school said the dean will speak, as well as alumni and elected officials.

Two non-student speakers dropped out of the event, including the head of ACLU.

"Shutting down opportunities for student speech during times of controversy violates of the spirit and best traditions of higher learning. CUNY and campuses across New York should do all they can to support inquiry and expression by inviting student voices into difficult conversations," the ACLU said in a statement.

CBS New York spoke to an NYU law professor who said the students' lawsuit is unlikely to succeed, adding it's a reach for students to say their First Amendment rights allow them to decide who speaks at the ceremony.

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