Although expressing reservations, a Southern District judge has declined to dismiss a claim by students and alumni of the City College of New York that the school violated their First Amendment rights when it removed a plaque naming a room for two former students now living as fugitives in Cuba -- one of whom had been convicted of bomb making and the other who had been imprisoned for killing a police officer.
"There is surely a serious question as to whether the students had a constitutional right to name the community center after two criminals" and "in effect commemorat[e] such criminals," Judge Thomas P. Griesa noted.
Nevertheless, he ruled in Williams v. Williams, 07 civ. 119, that the case should proceed because issues raised by the students' First Amendment claims and the school officials' qualified immunity defense "deserve a trial."
Griesa denied the motion of the college and its parent, City University of New York, to dismiss the lawsuit challenging the removal of the sign, which incorporated the names of Guillermo Morales, who was linked to the Puerto Rican independence group FALN, and Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Liberation Army who was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper.
The school removed the sign designating room 3/201 of the North Academic Center as the "Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Community and Student Center" after school closed on Dec. 13, 2006, more than 16 years after a student group first posted it.
According to Griesa, the officials "appeared" to have removed the sign "in direct response" to "extensive critical" news coverage. The action came a day after the New York Daily News ran an exposé and editorial criticizing the presence of a sign honoring two violent criminals in a taxpayer-funded school.
According to the lawsuit, a group of student activists called Students for Educational Rights, which organized chapters at a number of CUNY campuses to protest tuition hikes and budget cuts, first hung the sign in early 1990. By the time it was removed in 2006, at least two student political groups, in addition to SER, were also using the room.
Morales led a student strike in 1969 demanding increased enrollment of black and Puerto Rican students. After leaving CCNY, he was arrested after a bomb he was making exploded in a Queens apartment. He was sentenced to 89 years in prison on federal charges, but escaped from Bellevue Hospital and fled to Mexico.
Shakur, a former member of the Black Panther Party who was then known as Joanne Chesimard, escaped in 1979 from a New Jersey prison where she was serving a life sentence for killing a state trooper.
In addition to claiming that the removal of the sign violated their rights to free speech, the student plaintiffs contend the school unconstitutionally circumscribed their associational rights by deploying security guards who allegedly limited the number of people who could attend a meeting in the community center and a rally outside. The school denies that guards substantially interfered with the student protests.
The students also claim that the school committed a further violation when, after a replacement sign was hung, CCNY's vice president for student affairs wrote members of the student groups warning them that they are "responsible for ensuring that any kind of signage indicating the name of the Morales/Shakur Center may not be put up again."
The plaintiffs are represented by Ronald B. McGuire of Manhattan, who said his clients will show at trial that removal of the sign and the threats of disciplinary action against the students who operate the center "were politically motivated by college and university officials in response to articles and editorials in the Daily News and other media published less than 48 hours before the college officials removed the sign."
The defendants, all officials of CUNY and CCNY, argue in a memorandum of law accompanying their motion to dismiss that under a 1976 resolution by the CUNY board of trustees only college presidents, with the approval of the CUNY chancellor and board, can name a "part" of any building.
The university insists in its court papers that SER had never sought permission to name the room and that the university had never ceded to SER its naming rights.
The defendants say the sign, which was placed in a non-public forum, did not constitute protected speech. They argue its removal was a reasonable step to avoid any impression the school had endorsed the designation. In any case, they say there was no viewpoint discrimination because the "community center" was not a recognized student group.
The defendants' brief, which was written by Assistant Attorney General Karen Ann Dahlberg, also contends the officials are protected by qualified immunity because the purported unlawfulness of their actions was not clearly established in 2006.