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Students at the College of William & Mary affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement broke the code of conduct there last week when they shut down a talk by an American Civil Liberties Union representative, though officials at the public institution won’t say if or how they will be punished.
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU’s Virginia chapter, attempted to discuss free speech issues with students at the college in Williamsburg, Va., on Sept. 27, but no more than a few minutes into her talk, students holding signs lined the stage where she was speaking and drowned her out with chants of “ACLU, free speech for who?” “The oppressed are not impressed,” “ACLU, you protect Hitler, too,” “Blood on your hands,” “Shame! Shame! Shame!” and “Your free speech hides beneath white sheets.”
Later, when it was clear her talk couldn’t continue, students interested in Gastañaga's views tried to speak with her one on one. Those protesting simply yelled louder, preventing this. Gastañaga was never able to address the small crowd that had gathered, either broadly or individually.
Gastañaga said in a statement Thursday that William & Mary, as a public institution, is obligated to protect free expression and prevent a "heckler's veto" from stopping a speaker. The ACLU encourages colleges and universities to combat and call out discriminatory speech, she said.
"What happened at William & Mary on Sept. 27 is a part of a larger national trend that is challenging campus leaders across the country to find the right formula for assuring that critical community conversations can take place in a culture of inquiry consistent with a true learning environment. Actions that bully, intimidate or disrupt must not be without consequences in any such formula," her statement reads.
A member of the Black Lives Matter chapter, speaking during the demonstration, said the ACLU had hidden behind “the rhetoric of the First Amendment” to defend white supremacists. The woman who spoke pointed to the ACLU’s decision to back a white nationalist’s lawsuit against the city of Charlottesville, Va., where a woman protesting the white nationalists was killed at a rally in August.
“The ACLU and liberals believe that legality determines morality,” the student said. “Not too long ago, the Constitution dictated that black people only counted as three-fifths of a person. The Constitution cannot be your moral compass. In contrast to the ACLU, we want to reaffirm our position of zero tolerance for white supremacy no matter what form it decides to masquerade in.”
The group invoked the violence in Charlottesville in a statement issued Thursday night: “The ACLU consciously chose to intervene on behalf of organized white supremacy in Charlottesville. We find this intolerable. Members of our organization were nearly struck by the car that killed Heather Heyer on Aug. 12 -- our protest of the ACLU event on Sept. 27 was driven by our firm belief that white supremacy does not deserve a platform. The right to free speech is a fundamental human right. However, speech that condones, supports or otherwise fails to explicitly condemn injustice must be directly confronted.”
In written statements, both President Taylor Reveley III (who was traveling and unavailable for an interview) and a spokesman said the protest was “not acceptable.”
“We do not want any event to be ended early or shut down because someone disagrees with the views of the speaker or is attempting to prevent speech and questions by those attending. We must be a campus that welcomes difficult conversations, honest debate and civil dialogue. We are reviewing our planning and protocols and taking measures to prevent this from happening again,” the spokesman, Brian Whitson, said in a statement Thursday.
Citing federal privacy laws, Whitson declined to answer whether students would be disciplined for the protest, though he said the university takes “this matter seriously” and was “taking appropriate action.”
Whitson noted that disrupting an event such as Gastañaga’s talk, sponsored by the student-led programming organization Alma Mater Productions, violates several provisions of the student code of conduct. Consequences for breaking the code range from expulsion to students being required to complete an “educational activity” related to their infraction.
Alma Mater Productions deferred comment to the university.
Other institutions that have dealt with controversial figures being shouted down on campus have publicly announced punishments against students. Most notably, at Middlebury College, where the author Charles Murray was silenced in March, at least 74 students were punished, a majority being put on probation.
If students feel they can shut down an event with impunity, they will continue to do so, and so institutions must take a strong stance, said Ari Cohn, director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s individual rights defense program.
He called the students who interrupted the speech “profoundly misguided.” Cohn said the students may believe that minorities may have unequal access to a free speech platform, but that what they don’t realize is that censorship almost always hurts these communities first.
“They might find themselves similarly drowned out by force,” Cohn said.
FIRE does not advocate for particular consequences -- “the punishment must fit the crime,” Cohn said.
The best way students can be advocates for people of color and those who are unrepresented is by earning their degree, said Ebony O. McGee, an associate professor of education, diversity and STEM at the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University. She said there are other ways to advocate without shouting down a speaker.
She said students of color face much larger barriers to earning their degree at a predominantly white institution such as William & Mary and a toxic environment without the added stress.
“Getting your degree doesn’t make you less of an activist. It gives you power you may not ordinarily have to speak if you didn’t have it. I think it actually increases your ability to make things happen,” she said. “I just don’t want these students -- even if they have the right idea -- to compromise their college education because they want to shout at a speaker.”
The Black Lives Matter chapter has never been officially recognized by the university, Whitson said. Students involved with the group never pursued the designation, he said.
The university will “always” look for opportunities for its students to learn about the importance of free expression, Whitson said, adding it recently held, without incident, an event on partisan polarization that featured speakers from across the political spectrum.
“William & Mary will continue to have events in the future that address and explore uncomfortable topics. They occur here nearly every day, as they should at a leading university. That will not change,” Whitson said.
This incident coincides with the 50th anniversary of the first black students enrolling at William & Mary in 1967. The university will celebrate this benchmark the entire academic year. Whitson said the institution has acknowledged concerns about the racial climate on campus. Like many colleges, William & Mary created in 2015 a task force on improving race relations, which provided a list of recommendations.