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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Dispute Over College|Sign Heads to Trial

(CN) - A federal judge in Manhattan said a trial is necessary to determine if the City College of New York violated students' free-speech rights by removing a sign from a student center that bore the names of two fugitive felon alumni.

U.S. District Judge Thomas P. Griesa denied the school's motion to dismiss the lawsuit brought by a group of students and alumni. They said the college violated their free-speech rights when it removed the names of Guillermo Morales and Assata Shakur from above the center's entryway door.

Morales attended City College in 1969. He was among a group of students who organized a student strike to demand, among other things, increased admission of Black and Puerto Rican students.

"As a result of the agreements made with the striking students, the Board of Higher Education (the predecessor to the present CUNY Board of Trustees) adopted a resolution providing that every New York high school graduate would be guaranteed admission to a CUNY college," the ruling states. "As a result, Black and Latino students came to comprise the majority of the student body at City College. Morales was arrested and charged with bomb-making after he was seriously injured in an explosion in a Queens apartment in 1978. He escaped from police custody in 1979 and now lives in Cuba.

"Assata Shakur is a former member of the Black Panther Party, which supported the student strikers at City College in 1969," according to the ruling. "Shakur herself attended City College in the 1970s. Several years afterwards, she was convicted of the murder of a state trooper following a shoot-out on the New Jersey Turnpike in which her husband was killed and she was wounded. She escaped from prison in 1979 and she too now lives in Cuba."

In 1989 a coalition of students and community leaders called Students for Educational Rights (S.E.R.) negotiated an agreement that granted the group permanent use of a room in the City College North American Center. S.E.R. had just organized a strike to protest increased tuition and financial aid cuts.

"In the early 1990s the students who established this community center named it in honor of Guillermo Morales and Assata Shakur in order to 'express their common commitment to social justice, educational opportunity, service to the community and self determination for, and unity of, Black and Latino students and communities,' in the words of the verified amended complaint," the judge explained.

The students erected a large sign above the door to the community center bearing the names of Morales and Shakur in large block letters.

By 2006 the center was being used by a number of student groups, including S.E.R., the City College chapter of the Student Liberation Action Movement ('SLAM!'), and Dominicans 2000, among others.

A scathing editorial in the New York Daily News that same year stated that "by letting the sign remain, the administration sanctions a shrine to killers." As a result, the school received hundreds of emails and letters urging administrators to take down the sign, which they did. The school also threatened "disciplinary action" if the sign returns, the plaintiffs said.

"There is surely a serious question as to whether the students had a constitutional right to name the Community Center after two criminals and to place a sign announcing this name above the door, thereby in effect commemorating such criminals," Judge Griesa wrote.

"However, the court does not believe the case should be decided on motion. There are issues that deserve a trial, both as to plaintiffs' First Amendment claims and defendants' qualified immunity defense."

Defendants include the president of City College, Gregory Williams, and the school's chancellor and CEO, Matthew Goldstein.

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