Slap on the Wrist at Columbia?

Minimal punishments for students who disrupted speech renew debate over free expression and tolerance.
March 28, 2007

The reverberations from October’s fracas involving the disruption of a speech being given at Columbia University by an anti-illegal immigrant activist may gradually be coming to an end -- but not without a little more controversy. On Monday, at least three students charged with violations of the university’s rules of conduct were notified that decisions had been handed down. So far, the disciplinary actions are as lenient as university rules allow, bringing a range of reactions.

The students who came forward Monday with their decision letters all were found to have had “simple” violations, which one characterized as “a slap on the wrist.” All three were found to have disrupted the lecture and aided others in doing so; one was additionally found guilty of “engaging in a protest on the stage of the auditorium that placed others in danger of bodily harm.” The sanctions are classified as “disciplinary warnings” that will remain on the students’ transcripts until Dec. 31, 2008.  There are no actual punishments associated with the warnings. ( The New York Times reported Wednesday that eight students have received such decisions, with some sanctions rising to the level of "censure," but none of which would remain on students' records past graduation if they do not violate additional rules.)

The warnings didn’t come entirely by surprise. David Judd, president of Columbia’s chapter of the International Socialist Organization and one of the protesters who received a warning said it was “exactly what I was anticipating.” If the verdicts have generated some relief for the students involved, they angered the group that had its event disrupted: the Minuteman Project, a radical anti-immigrant group whose founder, Jim Gilchrist, was the one who tried to speak at Columbia.

Both Gilchrist’s group and the student protesters claim the other side instigated the scuffle. The national spokesman for the Minuteman  Project, Tim Bueler, referred to the disciplinary actions as a “whitewash” and contrasted the reception at Columbia with similar events at other universities. “If they keep going down this route, in the eyes of the public, they will lose their credibility,” he said. Columbia has apologized for the incident and refunded the sponsor of the event, the Columbia College Republicans, for the costs of the speech.

In a statement released yesterday, Columbia’s president, First Amendment scholar Lee Bollinger, said, “Under the published Rules of University Conduct, Columbia University has a longstanding and very specific process for disciplinary actions involving students. Those independent procedures have been followed in cases arising out of the events of last October 4. If the rule of law is to mean anything, it is vital that we respect the results of the system of rules we live under.”

The incident,  caught on tape and viewed widely on video services such as YouTube, gained national attention for its volatile mix of controversial issues like immigration and the boundaries of free speech on a private university campus. At the time, Bollinger minced no words in his public statement, saying, “No one … shall have the right or the power to use the cover of protest to silence speakers. This is a sacrosanct and inviolable principle.”

Students involved in the protests see the issue differently. They have consistently defended their actions as fighting hate speech, not free speech. In an op-ed in yesterday’s Spectator, the student paper, Judd expressed concern about what he perceived as an unfair campus judicial process whose results will  have “serious material impact” on his and other students’ future and create a “broader chilling effect” on campus.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that defends free expression on college campuses, isn’t convinced by the argument. “It was an attempt to silence a controversial speaker,” said FIRE’s president, Greg Lukianoff. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, and attempts to make it look any other way have looked pretty foolish.”


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