Students at the Claremont Colleges prevented most of the potential audience for a lecture by Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna College from entering the event Thursday night. Officials at the college decided that it would be dangerous to remove those protesting and so had the talk go on to a largely empty room while live-streaming the presentation.
The day before, Mac Donald was able to give a lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles, but the question period was interrupted by students, who chanted and took to the stage, making it impossible for Mac Donald to respond to questions at times.
Last week's disruptions come at a time of heightened debate in higher education and society about whether college students are intolerant of views with which they disagree. While this issue is not a new one, the shouting down of Charles Murray at Middlebury College last month intensified the discussion.
Murray and Mac Donald are both writers at conservative think tanks who are controversial in part for their views on race. Murray, of the American Enterprise Institute, is co-author of The Bell Curve and has been widely condemned for promoting views about race and intelligence that many say are racist and based on faulty social science.
Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, attracted controversy after the 2016 publication of her book The War on Cops. In the book, she criticizes the Black Lives Matter movement and says criminals have been "emboldened" by the scrutiny of police shootings. She writes that police are the single group in society protecting black people from "criminals and gangbangers" and that the police deserve more support, not more scrutiny.
Video of the protest at Claremont McKenna shows students surrounding the building where the lecture took place and blocking entry. (By the time the protests started, Mac Donald was already in a suite with a path to the building that was not visible to those protesting.) Students shouted various chants, such as "Shut it down," "Black lives matter" and "From Oakland to Greece, fuck the police." About 250 students were involved, some of them from Claremont McKenna and some from other Claremont Colleges.
A group claiming responsibility for the protest said it was organized by minority students at the Claremont Colleges, and said that it was wrong to permit Claremont McKenna's institute for state and local government to "host the notorious white supremacist fascist Heather Mac Donald. As a community, we cannot and will not allow fascism to have a platform."
"Mac Donald openly advocates and encourages mass incarceration of black and brown folks in the U.S. by explicitly stating racist constructions of 'black crime.' As the Amerikkkan [sic] state monopolizes violence, the judicial system is a branch of many institutions that protect the interests of rich white supremacists," the statement says.
On the issue of free speech, the statement says, "The way fascism is masked as 'free speech' is not any 'normal' exercise of constitutional power. White supremacists such as Heather Mac Donald claim protection from free speech as an exercise of constitutional rights forgetting that the Constitution was created by slave owners." (The group's statement did not include contact information, so Inside Higher Ed was unable to interview the protesters who issued it.)
Hiram E. Chodosh, president of Claremont McKenna, released a statement in which he said that he made the decision to have the event go on without taking immediate action against those who blocked access to most of those who wanted to attend.
"Based on the judgment of the Claremont Police Department, we jointly concluded that any forced interventions or arrests would have created unsafe conditions for students, faculty, staff and guests. I take full responsibility for the decision to err on the side of these overriding safety considerations," Chodosh wrote.
He also criticized the protest for preventing people from seeing a speaker talk.
"Blocking access to buildings violates college policy. CMC students who are found to have violated policies will be held accountable. We will also give a full report to the other Claremont Colleges, who have responsibility for their own students," he wrote. "Finally, the breach of our freedoms to listen to views that challenge us and to engage in dialogue about matters of controversy is a serious, ongoing concern we must address effectively. Accordingly, we will be developing new strategies for how best to protect open, safe access to our events."
Chodosh also questioned whether the tactic of blocking the event was effective. He said that about 250 people viewed the event live (online) and 1,400 have viewed the video since, far more than might have attended the lecture. "In the end, the effort to silence her voice effectively amplified it to a much larger audience," he wrote.
At the beginning of her talk on the livestream, Mac Donald thanked the college "for not disinviting me" and then asked why those chanting "Black Lives Matter" outside did not seem to share her concern about young black children killed by gang members and other criminals.
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed Sunday, Mac Donald said colleges need to realize that when students talk about shutting down an event, they will try to do so. "Campus police are very reluctant to arrest the little darlings, so if that's the case, they have to have police using commanding presence to make such blocking impossible."
Beyond the police, Mac Donald said that faculty members need to be more engaged in making sure speakers of all views are not blocked from expressing their views. Mac Donald said she appreciated statements in support of free speech, such as the one organized by Robert P. George of Princeton University and Cornel West of Harvard University.
But she said that was not enough and that professors should be on the front lines, telling students why free speech is important and helping to make sure that protests are not disruptive and do not prevent people from hearing a speaker.
"I think this should be a wake-up call to the faculty across the country," Mac Donald said of recent disruptions of speakers. "They have been given the extraordinary privilege of tenure to protect their own freedom of speech and thought," she said. But when the free speech of campus visitors is challenged, "the faculty are by in large missing in action."
At UCLA, the campus Republican group invited Mac Donald, and her lecture may be seen here.
She ends her talk shortly after minute 32 of the video and tries to shift to the question period. That's when chanting begins. At one point about 15 minutes after the chanting starts, the event organizers got some of those protesting to line up to ask questions. But the chanting resumed when Mac Donald started to answer the questions.
UCLA officials did not respond to a request for comment on what happened during the question period.
Mac Donald is scheduled to appear later this month at Miami University of Ohio.
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