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City College of New York student activists win rights case in court

by staff |
December 3, 2008
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New York, NY - On Nov. 21, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas P. Griesa ruled in favor of Brad Sigal, Ydanis Rodriguez and David Suker, three former student activists at the City College of New York (CCNY). The students praised the court decision in the Sigal v. Moses case, calling it an important victory for student activists and the student media.

The Sigal v. Moses case was filed over ten years ago in June 1998. The students sued City College President Moses over a series of incidents of repression against CCNY student activists that happened in the spring of 1998. This was during the height of the student movement to stop attacks on access to education and budget cuts at CUNY.

In his decision, Judge Griesa ruled that Moses acted illegally in nullifying the results of a student government election that a slate of progressive student activists, including Sigal, Rodriguez and Suker, had won in April 1998. President Moses nullified the election because she said that the election edition of the CCNY Messenger, a progressive student newspaper that some slate members worked on, was biased toward the students' slate, and therefore constituted illegal campaign materials. The Messenger newspaper was known as a strong student movement voice criticizing attacks on access to education and budget cuts by the CUNY administration and by then-Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki.

In court the students disputed that the election edition of the Messenger was biased. They pointed to the fact that the editorial about the student government elections was written by a neutral staff member, and didn't endorse any slate, while statements and photos were printed from all candidates running. Further, the Messenger editorial even strongly criticized some members of the slate they were accused of supporting. The students also held that even if the Messenger had favored the activist slate, it shouldn't have resulted in the nullifying of the student election because student newspapers have the right to endorse candidates in student elections. This is regular practice among student newspapers and has been upheld repeatedly in the courts.

In his Nov. 21 ruling, Judge Griesa held that there was no doubt that President Moses had in fact violated the students' rights by nullifying the student government election they had won based on materials printed in a student newspaper about the election. He also rejected President Moses's claim that her violation of the First Amendment was justified because she acted reasonably. Judge Griesa held that a reasonable college president in 1998 should have considered the First Amendment implications of nullifying a student election in response to material published in a student newspaper. When President Moses testified that she did not consider any First Amendment implications of her actions, Judge Griesa held that she had not sustained her burden of showing that her action to nullify the student government election was objectively reasonable.

Judge Griesa's unwillingness to rule in favor of President Moses despite his expressed sympathy for her is largely because of a precedent set in a sweeping ruling from the 1997 Husain v. Springer case. That case came from an almost-identical incident at the College of Staten Island. It was decided in favor of the College Voice newspaper and Student Union slate, both made up of progressive student activists.

As a result of the Sigal v. Moses ruling, lead plaintiff Brad Sigal won $337, the amount he was never paid back for printing the election issue of the Messenger. The other plaintiffs, Ydanis Rodriguez and David Suker, also won nominal damages. The students didn't mind waiting ten years for such a small monetary victory, because they said money is not what they were after. According to Sigal, "We were interested in the principle, not money. We thought what President Moses did was wrong. We brought this lawsuit to make sure she didn't get away with it."

Commenting on the significance of the victory, the students' lawyer Ron McGuire said, "The case establishes that college and university officials may not unreasonably rely on college or university rules to justify actions that violate students' constitutional rights. For many years, CUNY student activists have complained that university attorneys have been aiding and abetting college administrators in violating the students' constitutional rights. Unfortunately, it often takes many years and thousands of dollars to bring a case to a point of decision in a federal court. Finally, a federal judge has now held that a college administrator cannot escape liability for violation of clearly established First Amendment rights by merely saying that she relied on advice of her attorneys. Hopefully, Judge Griesa's decision will make college and university officials realize that there are consequences when students' rights are violated."

McGuire was a participant in the 1969 Open Admissions strike while a student at City College. He was later expelled from CCNY for his activism. McGuire was also the lawyer in the Husain v. Springer case that made the Sigal v. Moses victory possible. He has dedicated his career to defending CUNY students fighting for justice.

Plaintiff Brad Sigal stated, "After ten years we finally got a ruling that not only vindicated us, but will help today's student activists and student journalists. It should make college administrators less likely to attack student newspapers that criticize the powers that be, or attack activist student governments that mobilize students to protest for justice. That's what makes this victory important."