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John Tower Jr.
In a raucous performance-inspired protest, students at Beloit College on Wednesday shut down a planned speech by Erik Prince, an associate of President Trump and the controversial founder of the security company Blackwater.
Administrators canceled Prince’s chat following student protests in which they banged on drums and built a barricade of chairs on the stage where Prince was due to give his talk. The incident was the latest in a string of free expression occurrences on college campuses where students have intentionally drowned out speakers whose views they find distasteful. Most controversial speakers who seek to address campuses are able to do so, though episodes like this one have led to calls for colleges and universities to do more to prevent speech-interrupting protests.
Trump has spoken out about the issue repeatedly (ignoring challenges to free speech in which conservatives have shut down ideas they don't like). Trump recently signed an executive order that would deny federal research funds to those public universities that do not meet their First Amendment obligations. Private colleges are also subject to the order (not by First Amendment standards, but by their own stated policies).
The public focus on speaker shout-downs started more than two years ago with Middlebury College, where controversial author Charles Murray, who is often accused of being racist, was interrupted by hundreds of students -- at least 67 students were punished in some form because of the protests. While Trump has tended to attack public institutions over free inquiry, a number of these incidents have involved private institutions such as Middlebury and Beloit. And while Trump has said institutions have done nothing about these protests, Middlebury would be but one example of a college that punished those who blocked speech -- and Murray has spoken at numerous colleges since.
Still, the timing of the Beloit incident will likely add to the criticism of higher education on these issues.
Beloit has said it will investigate the incident, but it has not disclosed whether students could be punished.
Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, was invited by the Beloit chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a national conservative group, to discuss the private sector’s contributions to national security.
Employees at Blackwater, now known as Academi, were implicated in the deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007. Four former Blackwater guards were convicted in 2014 of murder, manslaughter and weapons charges. Many people continue to question Blackwater's role in U.S. foreign affairs.
Backlash was immediate after YAF’s announcement that it had invited Prince. One student was even briefly suspended from the college after writing a heated essay on Facebook criticizing the student chairman of YAF (though the student also was being judged on a number of other questionable social media posts).
Largely, the protests on Wednesday night were organic and planned separately, not in conjunction with a single student organization.
One group, Students for an Inclusive Campus, planned alternative activities during the Prince talk. Its members set up tables of food on a separate floor from where Prince was slated to speak at Pearsons Hall and arranged a show with drag queens in the building’s basement.
It also put together a walkout. About 200 attendees had gathered in the room prior to Prince’s talk, but a huge chunk left about 15 minutes before the event began, according to one student, Rose Johnson, who participated in the protests. Johnson uses they/them pronouns.
About five minutes before the talk, the drum line arrived, Johnson said -- part of a band that plays shows on the campus. Johnson and their friends had brought Bluetooth speakers to blare pop music on, which ended up not being in use because of the din.
Prince was delayed by at least 40 minutes, Johnson said, and in that time, the students started taking chairs and stacking them on the stage. From the wall of furniture, students hung a banner that read “Erik Prince = War Criminal.”
Shortly after that, Cecil Youngblood, the interim dean of students, announced to a room of cheering students that the college had canceled the event for safety reasons.
Wednesday night the college released a statement saying it would investigate the incident.
“As an institution of higher learning, open dialogue on all topics is one of our core principles. Tonight’s events fell unacceptably short of this core principle, and we condemn the behavior of those who disrupted the event,” the statement reads.
A representative for Beloit declined to comment further.
President Scott Bierman emailed campus on Thursday morning condemning the interruption, writing, “We need to be better than this.”
“The principles undergirding our free inquiry policies are fundamentally democratic,” Bierman wrote in the email. “To those who disrupted the talk: Do you really want to learn at an institution where there are self-appointed editors who shut down free inquiry because they believe they know what others ought to hear? I do not. That approach to education violates all that this college has historically stood for.”
Beloit's policy on demonstrations, which was revised in August, states that no person has the right to disrupt a speech or presentation. It does not list the consequences for infringing on that rule, though the student code of conduct lists a range of possible punishments for all violations from fines to expulsion.
The campus chapter of YAF did not respond to a request for comment. Spencer Brown, spokesman for the national office, said that the group "is closely watching how Beloit College handles the situation that unfolded on their campus last night."
Brown did not answer a question about who funded the event.
Johnson said they do believe that higher education should be an open forum, but they disagreed with allowing certain figures who make students feel unsafe onto campuses. They said they consider the (primarily) residential college their home and “wouldn’t feel right” about allowing or listening to someone such as Prince in their own space.
“There is a difference between that and safety and security, especially for students who are directly affected by his actions,” Johnson said of Prince. “Students who are Muslim, students who are people of color. At the end of the day it was a question of whose safety we are protecting. My friends did not feel safe with that person on campus.”
Prince told the local press, The Beloit Daily News, that legal action could be taken against the college -- whether that’s the case is unclear, given it’s a private institution not subject to the First Amendment.
"It's sad the president and the administration of this college lacked the moral courage to enforce free speech and to defend free speech," Prince said in an interview with the newspaper. "Fortunately, President Trump will defend free speech and I think the college will be hearing from the court soon on this, because enough is enough."