SUNY College in Brockport has spent the past two weeks trying to explain why the institution is committed to hosting a controversial speaker on its campus. But university officials have moved the April 6 event online amid opposition from Republican state lawmakers and NYPD groups and public outcry.

The speaker was Jalil Muntaqim, a former Black Panther convicted of murdering two police officers in a 1971 ambush attack. Muntaqim, formerly Anthony Bottom, spent nearly 50 years in prison before becoming an educator and activist. He was released on parole in 2020.

University officials cited “security concerns” as the reason for the change. They have not shared specific plans for the virtual project.

Muntaqim was invited by Rafael Outland, Assistant Professor, Department of Counselor Education, Brockport. The title of the event is “Black Resistance, American Political Prisoners, and the History of Genocide: A Conversation with Jalil Muntaqim.”

Jonathan Friedman, director of free speech and education at PEN America, a human rights association of writers and editors, said in an interview that he was concerned about what the university’s decision would mean for the politicization of higher education.

“This is a series of measures by the university to see this incident as an attempt to reduce or mitigate its impact,” he said. “At what point do all these changes to the plan have an impact on what he said or the people listening to him?”

Muntaqim’s planned visit brought mixed reviews on and off campus in Brockport. Last week, under pressure from the New York City police union and state Republican lawmakers, the university announced it would no longer pay Muntaqim, but his visit is still ongoing.

University President Heidi Macpherson said in a statement that while some were outraged that a convicted felon was asked to speak on campus, others remained interested in what Montagem might have to say. .

She said that while SUNY-Brockport does not support violence, the agency believes in free speech and wants listeners to gain new perspectives from difficult conversations.

“SUNY Brockport regularly hosts speaking engagements involving controversial speakers from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and will continue to do so,” McPherson said. “These conversations are uncomfortable. They should be.”

The campaign was initially funded through the Promoting Diversity Excellence Grant, according to the university’s chief diversity officer, Damita Davis. But a campus committee pulled the grant, saying the program would no longer fund speakers.

“We will suspend the PED grant program while we conduct a thorough review and revision of the grant application process,” Davis said in a statement on the university’s website.

Instead, private donors pay for Muntaqim’s appearances, WROC-TV/rochester first report. This decision was then overturned as well.

In anticipation of possible protests, the university warned of a large police presence on campus on the day of the event and told students they could choose to skip classes on April 6. But now, Muntaqim won’t come to campus at all.

Friedman said SUNY Brockport’s handling of Muntaqim’s conversation sets a worrying precedent for how faculty, students and others use funds available for on-campus activities. To him, this suggests that “centralized university institutions should have absolute power over the decisions that others are making.”

While the university said the main reason for moving Muntaqim’s speech online was campus safety, Friedman said political pressure appeared to have played a major role in weakening the event’s expected trajectory.

“Clearly, the decision to defund the event and reassess how the money is allocated is directly related to politicians telling this public university they don’t like what it’s doing,” Friedman said.

While the university continues to emphasize its commitment to “academic freedom, including diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Friedman worries that its actions show otherwise.

“The goal has to be that universities don’t shy away from moderating controversial and difficult conversations just because one group doesn’t think certain people have a right to use their platform,” he said.