A post-mortem of the highly controversial and hotly contested Free Speech Month
By Ufon Umanah
October 29th, 2017, Lerner Hall. Aristotle Boosalis (CC’19) stands alongside his co-patriots in the Satow Room before the Columbia College Student Council (CCSC). A few days before, he was in midtown, alerting the nation that he and his fellow board members had been doxed by unknown agents of the anti-fascism movement because he had invited a series of unsavory but conservative speakers to campus. Here he was, a day before one of those speakers would bring all of Lerner to a halt, and his Director of Public Relations, Marisa Sylvester (CC’20) had finished her remarks. Boosalis started by saying that his club’s series was about discussion, honesty, and growth, before moving towards the center of the tribunal and pronouncing that he, Aristotle, came to Columbia to be challenged.
In a way, he got his wish, though it came in the form of a unanimous investigation of the College Republicans.
Columbia has never been a peaceful academy. Dissent marks its history, affects its policy, and creates, for some, a sense of community. However, as 2017 leaves its mark on the Columbian free speech doctrine, passersby may look upon campus confused. Why did the Columbia University College Republicans (CUCR) represent an Islamophobe and a misogynist as figures of the conservative movement? Why is Columbia sending mixed messages on freedom of speech? And why is the community threatening the funding of the largest conservative group at Columbia? These outsiders might need a sliver of explanation to understand this story.
And it starts, strangely enough, on the other side of the country.
“Conservatives who cling to free speech will find a fate similar to that of the ‘nice Christian’ and ‘cool parent’ who eschew conviction for respect but ultimately attain neither.” –Kalu Ogbureke (CC ‘16)
September 24th, University of California, Berkeley. A washed-up political provocateur tries to salvage what’s left of his comeback tour. His collegiate backers had planned an entire week, a Free Speech Week, for him, but instead, he spoke for only 20 minutes on Sproul Plaza, each minute costing Berkeley $30,000 in security fees.
Some would say this is where the story should have ended: yet another college affair that for 15 minutes becomes a national headline. But as students at Berkeley came to blows, CUCR looked towards the public university and said, “If Berkeley can’t host it, we will.” Or better, they must have thought, why only plan a week of programming when they could plan a month?
This was how Free Speech Month was born; a speaker series meant to “make Columbia a place where not only the first amendment is respected, but also cherished.” And to advance that interest, CUCR would host events on mass immigration, Obamacare, and the alternative press. Only one of those topics is mentioned in the First Amendment.
According to CUCR, the event was not a series of discussions about the First Amendment, per se. By Boosalis’s word, it has always been about bringing “speakers with a wide range of values” from right-of-center as “the umbrella organization for Republican and conservative thought on campus.” Furthermore, according to the Director of Public Relations for CUCR, people like Mike Cernovich “have become increasingly important and popular with a large segment of Americans throughout the last election cycle,” and it’s important not to disenfranchise, as Boosalis might put it, the half of America that doesn’t go here, and doing that requires a commitment to First Amendment values and the marketplace of ideas.
Yet, despite this mandate of representation, CUCR wants to be clear: they don’t actually agree with these people. Many Americans, according to CUCR, believe that Islam is a violent religion being pushed on the United States, but CUCR “denounces racism, xenophobia, and bigotry.” If you, like CUCR, condemn racism; you could always go to the event with “well-researched, well-prepared questions … to engage in reasonable discourse” and prove why these speakers, and consequently, those Americans, are wrong.
Many passersby and political pundits, might have the same view. Why can’t a Muslim and an Islamophobic speaker sit down and have a rational conversation? It’s not like thousands of people and dozens of nonprofits around the world haven’t been trying for decades now. But for the Herman Cain event during this year’s Free Speech Month, the livestream advertisement organized by Young America’s Foundation and shared by CUCR mocked “leftist snowflakes,” and encouraged people to “watch [them] run for a safe space” away from the “powerful” Herman Cain. Does this also present a conservative sentiment? If not, why else invite, outside of the confines of Free Speech Month, Martin Shkreli, who isn’t a politician, journalist, or activist?
Regardless of the motivation behind their invitation, Columbia would have to protect them.
“I think everybody’s natural impulse is … to be naturally intolerant. None of us likes to confront ideas that we disagree with.” -Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University
October 5th, Low Steps. Columbia College Dean James Valentini takes a photo with a distinguished guest in front of the photo-ready Alma Mater. As the photographer readies the shot, the first protest against CUCR forms behind him. The picture is taken, Valentini and company smiling, while the protest provides the scenery.
The photo befits Columbia’s past. It wasn’t the first time students demanded that Columbia “cancel…events involving these kinds of hateful and racist views,” as they did at the protest. Yet, time and time again, Columbia asserts, as a matter of principle, that students have “a right to invite speakers with varied points of view to campus,” whether through unanimous votes in the University Senate or strongly-worded statements to the public. While the University recognizes those who “respectfully protest disagreeable views,” to prevent the University from “following those principles” is, according to its President, “troubling.”
The firmness of the University’s response, however, did not deescalate the situation. On October 10th, the day of the Robinson event, the NYPD, in conjunction with Columbia Public Safety, erected barricades on the Broadway side of Lerner as students and Harlem residents alike demonstrated street-side. Inside Lerner, the second floor ramp would soon flood with students chanting “shame, shame, shame” at both Columbia and CUCR. Only a few of these protesters managed to enter the event itself before the doors officially closed. Inside, some of the protesters who had settled in rushed the stage to demand more students be let in and to try to shout Robinson down when he appeared—though the advertised Q&A managed to proceed.
It was for this effort alone that over a dozen students were charged with disruption of an University event.
However, this charge proved controversial. For one, the charges came with an interim ban from future CUCR events until Rules Administrator Suzanne Goldberg could process the case. When a University Senator questioned the legality of interim sanctions, Provost John Coatsworth said that the “Rules of Conduct allow the University President” to take such steps to “assure that the next set of meetings goes peacefully.” This did not quell Barnard’s Student Government Association, which called the sanctions an “explicit violation of due process” that “undermines [the] right to express disagreement.” Nor did it please around one hundred faculty members, who called the general proceedings against the protesters a “star chamber,” a pejorative reference to the English Court of Law. Nor did it satisfy Professor Katherine Franke, whose own letter criticized the Rules Administrator and called Bollinger’s public position on protest “zero-tolerance.” Here, facing this opposition, in defense of free speech, the University decided to drop the charges, hours before the Cernovich event.
The question remains as to why. Protesters during the Minutemen incident were charged with censure and disciplinary warnings, so why not here? Was it because rushing the stage and tussling with CUCR on October 4th, 2006 was substantially different than what happened on October 10th, 2017? If so, wouldn’t that comparison be obvious from the video from both events? There won’t be answers to this, as Columbia does not comment on disciplinary procedures.
However, as protesters evade potential suspension, Columbia faces a renewed debate.
“CCSC’s passing of the proposal last Sunday evening, and the protests which occur so frequently on this campus, are merely the result of community members revoking this privilege. Students must continue to wield this privilege to hold clubs—and one another—accountable.” -Toqa Badran (CC ‘19), Student Services Representative of CCSC
October 29th, Satow Room. It wasn’t the first time CCSC President Nathan Rosin (CC ‘18) had to deal with campus controversy. It wasn’t the first time in October a student council debated free speech. And yet, there was something new in the petition submitted to CCSC that read, in part, that CUCR was “unfit to be a member of this community.”
The Black Students Organization (BSO), its president Braxton Gunter (CC’18), had launched the petition on Facebook the day before, asking student groups to sign a statement originally meant for the Student Governing Board (SGB). Within, they state their opposition to “giving a platform to beliefs that blatantly oppose our livelihood and humanity” even “in the name of intellectual diversity,” which the administration promotes. But what made the petition a threat, one CUCR had to respond to, was BSO’s demand, to “derecognize CUCR” and “redistribute” their funding, a demand soon co-sponsored by the Columbia University Democrats.
Part of the argument in CCSC, and indeed much of the argument that spilled into the op-ed pages of the Columbia Daily Spectator, revolved around the emotional toll on and dehumanization of marginalized students, as it did for the protesters from October 5th. This lost steam where it usually does, with CUCR challenging the definition of “dehumanizing,” rehashes of the “dehumanizing” positions in question, and so on.
But when CCSC decided that it was worth investigating CUCR, it did so on what they saw as more “objective” points.
First, despite CUCR’s pledge that none of their allocation goes to cover Robinson, who called in via Skype, and Cernovich, who announced he waived his speaker’s fee, Columbia requires a Security and Facilities cost for all events. This cost isn’t covered by allocation, rather by money from the Student Activities Fee — the student equivalent of taxes that every student pays. Should Columbia students have to pay a total of $3,543 to defend speakers they are morally offended by? Furthermore, should they have to pay for the $4,640 included in CUCR’s regular allocation, as BSO argued they should not?
Second, as a result of the two events, other students were unable to utilize the central student space at Columbia. When Columbia fortified Lerner Hall on October 30th, the building was effectively shut down, with security barring entry to guests and students alike. In the general report CCSC wrote to the administration, events ranging from the Engineering Student Council General Body Meeting to the Board Meeting of the Columbia International Relations Council and Association were cancelled. Additionally, as a result of the Cernovich event, a different speaker for the Columbia Women’s Business Society (CWBS) could not enter Lerner that night, forcing CWBS to cancel their event. Should one club’s event be able to shut down a facility instrumental to the ongoings of student life and governance?
Implicitly, the argument is an exercise in legal balancing. Does Columbia’s interest in preserving freedom of speech outweigh the negative secondary effects of expression? This argument should be familiar with the University President, himself a famous First Amendment scholar immersed in the debatability of these issues “in Constitutional terms.” However, debatability is an interesting choice of words in context. The United States Supreme Court does theoretically allow the government to regulate speech that may cause an immediate breach of the peace, but in various, disparate cases it has limited the government’s power to do so. As a result, Bollinger would say, “it is unknown to what extent that state must endure violence to protect freedom of speech.”
It might, however, be time for Columbia to decide for itself.
“The rats, the rats, we got to get rid of the rats.” Barnaby Raine (Oxford, ‘16), GSAS student organizer
October 30th, outside Lerner Hall. The hostile throng rounds Fortress Columbia. Protesters chant as Cernovich supporters try to get embarrassing photos to circulate on Twitter. A team of students tries to de-escalate conflict within the crowd. One of them loses their balance and gets kneed in the ribs by a male supporter of Cernovich. The next morning, she suffers internal bleeding and a concussion.
Last year, when Milo Yiannopoulos was dry and current, CUCR had also invited him to campus. However, under the previous board, the invitation was rescinded after news from the other side of the country reported that one of his supporters had shot a protester. Whereas CUCR had dodged that bullet before, such luck seems to have dissipated. Though Columbia “proved that if Berkeley wanted to have free speech events, it can happen,” two CCSC representatives and the BSO President explicitly said they don’t want another Berkeley, and CUCR does not seem to desire the threats that have come with that environment.
On October 30th, Executive Vice President Suzanne Goldberg launched the #unitedCU campaign, as part of an effort to bring the community together after the tensions stirred. Yet, over time, divisions seem only obscured. Columbia Democrats, after all, had just called for the defunding of their opposite political group, the Republicans. Even Goldberg, in her capacity as a professor and not as a representative of Columbia, wondered if “imposing [a] restriction may be the best approach in an admittedly challenging environment.”
As BSO’s petition to SGB stalls, CCSC’s report was filed to the recently formed Student Organization Adjudication Board, with seats from six student councils and boards and designed similarly to the Intergreek Council. However, the appointed members of SOAB have yet to be trained in the necessary law. It remains unclear whether CUCR will be put before SOAB in the spring or if the case will be heard by the administration.
After the University Senate passed the resolution on free speech in 2006, Senator Christopher Riano (GS ‘07), presented a Report on Free Speech at the November plenary. Among the questions constituents were debating: “Who are students allowed to invite to campus? What considerations must be taken into effect when inviting speakers to campus?… Where do we, as Columbia, draw the line between one’s own rights of expression and another’s? How do we ensure that the purpose of our institution to foster intellectual growth is protected?”
11 years later, we’re still debating those questions. Indeed, the country is still debating these questions. But here we are at Columbia, where 11 years ago, a majority of student groups supported the standing tradition of free speech, while “a very vocal minority” stood in opposition to that view. ‘To what extent is that true today,’ the passerby might wonder. Given the news, it’s a fair question. And until we answer it, we will have to keep asking.