A Matter of Degrees

From The New York Times:

Jonathan-caren-tony-kushner In 1940, a Brooklyn woman named Jean Kay filed a suit with the State Supreme Court against the her city’s Board of Higher Education claiming that the renowned mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell was morally unfit to teach at the City College of New York, where he had been offered a professorship. Kay, supported by a host of others in the public scrum, including Bishop William Manning of the Episcopal Church, argued that Russell, who advocated sex before marriage and other heretical lifestyle choices, posed a threat to the virtue of her daughter — even though the impressionable youth was not actually a student at the college. A judge ruled in Kay’s favor. Russell, who was not allowed to speak in his own defense, was denied his appointment at the college, which was, and is, part of the publicly financed City University of New York system. Today, the now-notorious incident is chronicled in an exhibition on City College’s Web site, called “The Struggle for Free Speech at CCNY, 1931-1942,” as is a recounting of the subsequent firings, spurred by the McCarthy era Rapp-Coudert Committee, of faculty members accused of being Communist Party members.

Though the issues and stakes have changed, CUNY now finds itself at the center of another free speech controversy, which has erupted, 71 years and some months after Kay filed her complaint — as Patrick Healy of The Times, among others, reported on Wednesday:

In a rare move, the trustees of the City University of New York have voted to shelve an honorary degree that one of its campuses, John Jay College, planned to award to Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Angels in America.” The vote on Monday evening came after a CUNY trustee said that Mr. Kushner had disparaged the State of Israel in past comments, a characterization that the writer attacked on Wednesday.

More here.