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A photo illustration combining a photo of Robert George, a light-skinned man with light hair, with a megaphone and an illustration of students protesting.

Students disrupted Robert George’s Sept. 7 speech at Washington College.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Rawpixel

A conservative Princeton University professor tried to give a speech this month at Washington College centering on the need for campus free speech. Students disrupted his talk and succeeded in ending it.

It was another example of what are often called student shoutdowns or “heckler’s vetoes”—though the meaning of that phrase is contested—disrupting conservative speakers. Perhaps most prominently this year, in March, Stanford University students disrupted a talk by Judge Kyle Duncan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

This month’s Washington College incident, first reported by The Star Democrat and later by The Chronicle of Higher Education, featured Robert George, who didn’t respond to Inside Higher Ed’s requests for comment Tuesday. He’s the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton and directs Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, which recently released a new set of proposed academic freedom and free speech principles.

As a founder of the National Organization for Marriage, he was among the nation’s most high-profile opponents of same-sex marriage. He has also opposed abortion access and criticized the concept of someone being transgender.

These positions drew student opposition to his Sept. 7 speech at Washington College, a private university in Maryland. Brian Speer, a college spokesman, said it enrolls 916 students.

According to Speer and a transgender student who said she wished to remain anonymous, “out of fear of being doxed by fascists nationally,” it was specifically the disruption by two people—the anonymous student herself and a former student who joined the protest—that managed to cancel George’s speech.

Speer said the former student has been banned from campus and that two students will go before the Honor Board. He said they violated the student honor code and face “sanctions that could include suspension or expulsion, but that decision rests solely with the Honor Board.” That board consists of nine students appointed by the Student Government Association Review Board and six faculty members elected by the faculty.

The anonymous student, who said she could be referred to as Gwen or G, said she’s one of those facing the board. She said she played punk music in Hynson Lounge, where George was speaking. She said administrators and protesters tried to talk over each other, which escalated into yelling—all while George sat there “smugly.”

She said the former student protester shouted, “You know how many death threats I get from being trans?” The Star Democrat also reported that comment.

“There are a lot of people who are criticizing the protest and its methods,” Gwen said. But she said George “sees the existence of queer and trans people as illegitimate” even when they’re not fighting, so “we may as well fight.”

She said protesters took canceling the speech into their own hands after college administrators rebuffed student and faculty member calls to cancel it.

“It very much feels like they are far more sympathetic to this fascist than they are to the queer students of their own school,” she said of administrators at the college.

Speer said Mike Sosulski, Washington College’s president, was at the speech. Sosulski sent an email to the campus following the incident.

“As planned in the case of disruption, a number of faculty and student affairs staff tried to reason with the protesters, insisting that they must permit the speaker to conclude his talk, after which there would be ample time for questions or rebuttals,” the email said. “Unfortunately, and despite repeated directives, the students who entered the event with the intention of disrupting the speaker refused to end their protest. Following a lengthy attempt to resolve the protest peacefully and allow the speaker to continue, I made the reluctant decision to call an end to the event to prevent further escalation.”

Sosulski said, “Washington College stands by the First Amendment and the respectful exercise of it, which means allowing others to do so as well.”

Gwen said there was no escalation coming.

“The event was effectively on pause until they could figure out what they could do,” she said.

Noelle Punte, a junior at the college and president of the student group Encouraging Respect of Sexuality, said she wasn’t at the protest, but she said it was George who decided to leave. Gwen reiterated that.

Joseph Prud’homme, the founding director of Washington College’s Institute for Religion, Politics and Culture, invited George, according to Speer. Prud’homme didn’t return requests for comment Tuesday.

On Sept. 4, at the start of the week of the speech, he sent an email to the campus notifying everyone of the event.

Punte said a different professor emailed a student journalist a link to a webpage where GLAAD, a gay rights organization, compiled quotations from George. Punte said the student reporter showed her the page, and Punte then spread word on campus and asked Sosulski to cancel the event.

“The fact that he was allowed to be on campus made me uncomfortable,” Punte said. “It made almost every queer person that I talked to uncomfortable.”

In an email to the campus the day before the event, Sosulski rejected the cancellation requests—though he shared the GLAAD page and said George “espouses views that some members of our community find abhorrent.” He offered a different event for people to talk about their feelings.

“I encourage everyone to consider the importance of hearing and questioning views that challenge them,” he wrote. “The world in which we live, and especially the world into which our graduates will journey, is filled with perspectives we find difficult to accept, but in order to thrive and create change, we must be willing to navigate difficult dialogues.”

Still, the speech was disrupted. Speer, the college spokesman, said there were a few campus safety officers at the event, but guidelines at the time, which now may change, said they were not to intervene in nonviolent protests.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech advocacy group, said Washington College should have done more at the time of the incident.

“Security members have the obligation to remove such protesters so the event can proceed, and should be briefed accordingly,” FIRE wrote. “Administrators should also inform students that peaceful, non-disruptive protests or counter-events are allowed, but that attempted disruptions will result in removal from the event, and in potential discipline.”

Speer said Sosulski told George he “hopes he can return to campus to deliver his lecture.”

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