Controversial Speaker ICEd Out by Penn Students

A noisy protest prompted the University of Pennsylvania to shut down a discussion by a controversial speaker. A debate ensued about whether the university or the students who protested were wrong.

October 25, 2019
 
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The University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House was all set to host the former director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency Wednesday to discuss detention and deportation policies under the Obama and Trump administrations.

But the director, Thomas Homan, never got the chance to speak. Students who'd gathered outside the venue that evening calling for the abolishment of ICE and requesting that Homan “go home” prevented the event from taking place, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian. The noise from the students' chanting eventually led to the abrupt end of the event just 15 minutes after it was supposed to start, the newspaper reported.

Organizers of the talk escorted Homan and two experts on immigration law and policy who were to be part of the discussion off stage and announced that the event was being canceled. The protesters allegedly cheered.

Perry World House, which hosts events and lectures on campus related to global engagement, released a statement on Tuesday, in advance of Homan's appearance, saying that “members of the Penn community may disagree with a particular speaker” but “having conversations about those differences is part of what makes universities such as Penn essential locations for free expression, debate, and dialogue.”

The university released a statement on Thursday about the protest.

"At Penn we have a deeply felt and unwavering commitment to free expression. Having open conversations on the important, and sometimes controversial subjects of our day, is a critical part of the higher education experience," said the statement provided by a university spokesperson. "A fundamental tenet of free expression is that we all have the right and the opportunity to counter speech with which we disagree with better speech. Sadly, those who attempted to prevent the Perry World House panel from occurring made the ill-considered decision to try to stifle speech, rather than engage it. Their actions run counter to the ideals we hold dear as a University.

"Open expression can be a painful business, but it is vitally important that we protect it on our campuses especially when the views are controversial. This includes protection of views with which many people or anyone on campus -- whether it be students, faculty, staff or the administration -- may vehemently disagree. Fortunately, the Perry World House panelists were able to reconvene with a smaller number of engaged and interested students, but the actions of those who tried to stop that dialog were wrong and profoundly disappointing."

Jonathan Friedman, project director of the campus free speech project at PEN America, which advocates for freedom of expression and human rights, said everyone loses when protesters prevent public discussions about important social and political issues from taking place.

“Universities must be places that can host important debates on critical issues for an informed public,” Friedman said in an email. “But by exercising the 'heckler's veto,' the protesters here both violated the rights of other audience members, and squandered an opportunity to challenge a former public official, rendering the possibility of engaging in debate, criticism, or even shaming, effectively null.

“Outrage over the actions of the Trump Administration and ICE is certainly legitimate; but by adopting such a censorious tactic, those who want to abolish ICE risk undermining their message, becoming better known for their willingness to violate others’ speech rights than for their advocacy for immigrants,” he said. “There are ways to protest Homan and ICE that are respectful of free speech, that could be more creative, maybe even more impactful. It's unfortunate that the leaders of Perry World House felt they had no choice but to shut this conversation down.”

Prior to the event, a petition was circulated by Penn alumni and signed by hundreds of alumni, students and allies at other institutions calling for the event to be canceled and for the university to cease inviting ICE-affiliated speakers to campus.

“Consequently, inviting Homan as a guest speaker contradicts Penn’s claim of being a sanctuary campus that is committed to ensuring the well-being and safety of all of its students,” the petition said.

Student groups Penn for Immigrant Rights, the Latinx Coalition, Asian Pacific Student Coalition, UMOJA, Penn Association for Gender Equity, Lambda Alliance, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan and Mujeres Empoderadas also signed the digital document.

Homan, who was the Trump administration's director of ICE from January 2017 to June 2018, took to Fox & Friends: First, an early-morning television program, on Thursday to give his side of the story. He described alumni who started the petition as “ignorant” and said he was “disgusted” by the incident. He said the protest against him reflects the current state of higher education and that half of the audience at the event was not there to learn.

Homan said he met with interested students after the event was canceled and discussed U.S. immigration policy and answered questions.

Commenters were divided on whether Penn was wrong for inviting the ICE director or if students overreacted and prevented an educational discussion from taking place.

“Universities have dual obligations here. They have the obligation not only to uphold the free speech promises they make to their students -- or if they’re a public university to uphold the free speech rights that they are bound to provide by virtue of the First Amendment -- but they also have the obligation to ensure the safety of the students, their professors, the entire educational community,” said Zach Greenberg, a program officer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which specializes in First Amendment cases involving students and faculty. “These obligations come to a head when it comes to situations like inviting controversial speakers to campus.”

He said FIRE encourages universities to create policies and plans to preserve safety during controversial events and allow them to take place. He said the organization encourages a model of "more speech" to counteract division.

Greenberg said universities can encourage more disruptions by protesters and deprive students of hearing diverse speakers by canceling events under pressure. Greenberg also noted that because of Penn’s stature, the decision to shut down the event could set a precedent for other institutions to believe such a response to protesters is acceptable, when in fact it's not.

Students have been increasingly protesting ICE or Trump administration officials on university campuses across the country, although few instances have resulted in the canceling of a scheduled event. Still, it's becoming more commonplace for colleges to respond this way to student protests on campus.

“It’s really a shame, because it shows the attitudes about free speech on campus, these protesters don’t believe in more speech,” said Greenberg. “And many times universities are at fault here because instead of ensuring safety and ensuring the speech can go on, they simply [cave] to the protesters and let the disruptions happen.”

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