5 Suspended for Blocking Speech

Claremont McKenna announces punishments for those who prevented an audience from hearing Heather Mac Donald, an author whose views on criminal justice they call racist.

July 18, 2017
 
Students at Claremont McKenna block entrance to speech by Heather Mac Donald.

Claremont McKenna College announced Monday that it is punishing seven students -- five with suspensions -- for their role in blocking an audience from hearing a speech by Heather Mac Donald in April.

The Claremont McKenna protest is among those highlighted by many observers who say that some students in American higher education have become intolerant of views with which they disagree. In the case of Mac Donald, those protesting say that her views on criminal justice are racist -- a charge that she denies -- and that her views justified their protest.

As was the case at Middlebury College, where Charles Murray was prevented from speaking in March, a public appearance (with a scheduled question-and-answer period) turned into a live stream without an audience after the protests blocked the original events from going on as scheduled.

Many have been watching to see how the two colleges would punish those who blocked the speeches. Students at both campuses videotaped and photographed their protests -- posting the images to social media -- so plenty of faces were visible. Middlebury announced in May that a total of a total of 74 students had been found to have violated college policies and were punished as a result. Those punishments fell short of suspensions.

At Claremont McKenna, three students were suspended for a year, two students were suspended for a semester and two students were placed on "conduct probation." About 170 students participated in the protest that blocked Mac Donald from speaking to an audience. But many of those students were from other colleges in the Claremont system, and while Claremont McKenna referred their cases to their institutions, it does not have jurisdiction over those students. So comparing Middlebury and Claremont McKenna, the latter punished far fewer students, but the punishments were more severe.

A statement issued by the college said that the blockade of the speech site "breached institutional values of freedom of expression and assembly."

College officials have said since the incident that students had every right to protest Mac Donald, but not to prevent those who wanted to hear her from doing so. In Monday's statement, the college included the specific policy students were found to have violated. That policy bans "actions which disturb or disrupt the personal safety, peace or well-being of the community or any community members, or which disturb or disrupt the normal functions of the college (including actions which interfere with maintaining order on campus)."

Three students faced disciplinary hearings but were found not to have violated college policies.

The college said that the different punishments for the seven students were based on "the nature and degree of leadership in the blockade, the acknowledgment and acceptance of responsibility, and other factors."

Reports have circulated that one of those suspended participated in commencement this spring. A college spokeswoman said she could not be specific on the issue due to privacy policies, but she released this statement: "We cannot comment on sanctions for graduating seniors; however, we can say how the college would approach a situation in which a senior has fulfilled all of the academic requirements for graduation, participated in the commencement ceremony and received a degree, but is still undergoing a conduct and investigation process. In cases of findings of responsibility and suspension for any such student, the formal date of the degree would be suspended until such time as the student served the suspension period."

Some supporters of the students accused the college of treating them unfairly. The college statement said that "efforts to politicize and interfere with this process had no influence on timing or decisions. Students had an opportunity to be heard, pose questions, ask for further investigation and raise objections throughout the process. The independent panel of three (one panelist each from the faculty, staff and student body) determined their findings of responsibility on a preponderance of video and photographic evidence and a limited amount of witness testimony."

The statement from the college also said that it "must continue to invite the broadest array of speakers on the most pressing issues of the day. Our faculty must help us understand how to mitigate the forces that divide our society. Our students must master the skills of respectful dialogue across all barriers. Our community must protect the right to learn from others, especially those with whom we strongly disagree. And Claremont McKenna College must take every step necessary to uphold these vital commitments."

Nana Gyamfi, a lawyer with the group Justice Warriors for Black Lives, has been advising the students who faced charges. She called the college's actions "completely outrageous" and said that the students were being punished by the college "to intimidate and to bully" them.

She said that the protest was “warranted” because of Mac Donald's views. "This particular person is a person who has expressed her antagonism toward Black Lives Matter" and "has been giving excuses for extrajudicial killings of black people," she said.

Gyamfi said that Mac Donald’s free speech was not limited in any way, in that she was able to give her talk online. "What free speech rights did the students prevent? Did they jump up in her speech? Did they grab her and pull her aside? She could talk all day long." Asked about the students who wanted to hear Mac Donald, Gyamfi said that "there is no right to hear someone speak."

The real issue, Gyamfi said, is that Claremont McKenna is not committed to diversity. "They need to understand what it means to be diverse, that it's not about having a quota of marginalized people to say 'we have black people' and 'we have brown people.'" Real diversity is about "creating safe spaces" where students feel respected. She said that Claremont McKenna's leaders should enroll in a course she teaches at California State University, Los Angeles, called Race, Activism and Emotions if they want to understand how it was wrong to permit Mac Donald to be scheduled to give a lecture on campus.

That Mac Donald has criticized the Black Lives Matter movement is not in dispute. 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. She says that she is not racist and in fact is an advocate for black people who live in neighborhoods that are unsafe due to crime.

In an interview Monday after the punishments were announced, Mac Donald said that she was "glad some students were being held responsible" and that some of the punishments were significant. She noted that many more students who participated appear unlikely to be punished. She also said that she appreciated that Claremont McKenna leaders have spoken out about the value of free speech.

But Mac Donald added that the idea that her views on Black Lives Matter would justify a protest to block her from speaking was "an amazing proposition," and a dangerous one. Even if Black Lives Matter was a worthy organization, which Mac Donald offered as a hypothetical with which she disagrees, "I don't know how one could begin to justify an argument that any social movement is beyond criticism."

She also reiterated her view that students need to ask questions about Black Lives Matter. The organization and its supporters, she said, "show indifference to the thousands of black lives taken every year by street crime."

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