Update, 4:23 pm: Executive Vice President for Student Life Suzanne Goldberg released a statement via email to the Columbia community outlining that the University must, as a matter of learning and teaching, host speakers “whose views conflict so directly with our institutional values.” The full text is available beneath the jump.
Tonight at 8 pm in the Roone Arledge Cinema, Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, better known by his pseudonym Tommy Robinson, will address the Columbia University College Republicans about “Europe and mass immigration,” according to CUCR’s Facebook event.
This event is one of four planned speaker events for October; other invited speakers include Herman Cain, Mike Cernovich, and a panel of undisclosed individuals. The speakers plan to discuss topics such as “the disasters of ObamaCare and the American Dream” and “the rise of the new media.”
Several student activist groups have already shown an interest in resisting these speakers. For instance, Heven Haile, CC ‘21, previously helped organize a group of students from the class to write a statement in response to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that occurred earlier this summer. Now, in response to Tommy Robinson’s planned speech, Haile and other members of the class have met several times in order to coordinate protests against his Islamophobic values.
“I went to a predominantly white elementary school, middle school, and high school, so I can see the dangers of white supremacy and the effects it has on students. I don’t want that to be a pervasive issue here,” said Haile. “I can see how there’s a push-out of minority students when it comes to harmful ideology that roots itself into students in a silent way.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center Chapter at Columbia already organized a solidarity event on October 5th that gathered students and residents of Harlem together to peacefully protest the invited speakers. “When we heard that the Columbia Republicans had invited these speakers who self-identify as white supremacists and then after that the University approved this event, we decided to organize around it because we feel like number one, it does not reflect the values of Columbia as well as the community of Harlem which the University is in. We feel like that is disrespectful to them, a community of color,” said Mistee Denson, a student leader of the SPLC chapter. “We do respect free speech, but we also believe that we have the right to stand up and push back and say this is not how Columbia as a whole feels, this is not how we feel and this is not representative of the University.”
Student activists gathered in a circle to hear personal testimonies about issues such as police violence, gentrification, white supremacy, and fascist historical figures. Activists lead chants such as, “What do we do when our rights are under attack? Stand up, fight back,” and, “What do we want? Liberation. When do we want it? Now.”
In addition, an event was held last night entitled “Tommy Robinson Exposed: CUCR’s Islamophobic Speaker” and was hosted by several on-campus activist organizations, including the Muslim Students Association, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, and several others. At the event, a panel of speakers discussed their personal experiences with Islamophobia and implored the students present to combat this rhetoric.
The events planned for tonight include a march from 125th and Broadway down to Lerner Hall, where Columbia University Apartheid Divest is holding an anti-fascist rally. “We condemn CUCR’s decision to assist the white nationalist agenda which has consistently promoted violence and aggression toward some of the most vulnerable communities on our campus and in the US,” CUAD stated in the description for the event.
After the protest is slated to end at 8 pm, the Columbia University Democrats are hosting an event, “Combatting Xenophobia and Islamophobia” with Albert Cahn, the legal director of the New York Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. In direct contrast to the protests being planned by CUAD, the Democrats noted in the event description that they “don’t believe it’s productive to give him any more of a platform to espouse his abhorrent views or give him the attention he desires by attempting to shut down the event.”
Representatives from CUCR failed to return my requests for comment.
Email from Suzanne Goldberg, with the subject line “Contentious speakers on our campus:”
There is much in the news about contentious speakers on campuses around the country, including our own. And while some students welcome these debates, others raise serious concerns about the negative impact of white supremacists and others who express hostile and derogatory views on race, religion and gender. These kinds of messages, as you know, contradict Columbia’s core commitment to the value of all members of our community and to diversity among our students, faculty and staff, as President Bollinger has often made clear.
Against this backdrop, here’s an abbreviated explanation of why the University allows student organizations to invite speakers whose views conflict so directly with our institutional values: It is foundational to Columbia’s learning and teaching missions that we allow for the contestation of ideas. This includes expression of ideas that are deeply unpopular, offensive to many in our community, contrary to research-based understandings, and antagonistic to University tenets.
Without this policy, the University would be in a position of deciding which views our community should hear and which it should not. Perhaps needless to say, there is often not consensus about when speakers cross the line into being impermissible. Having University officials decide which ideas outside speakers can express on campus also poses serious risks to academic freedom.
Still, when white supremacist, anti-Muslim and similar speakers come to campus, Columbia has an important responsibility to make clear our values: that we reject those views and maintain our commitment to fostering a vibrant community founded on the fundamental dignity and worth of all of our members, as our nondiscrimination statement provides. We also support research, teaching and other opportunities for community members and the public to learn more about the deep flaws in these speakers’ views. And our Rules of University Conduct, while protecting these speakers’ right to speak without disruption, also strongly protect protesters in expressing their views.
In the coming weeks, you will have opportunities to participate in campus conversations and also learn more about these issues, including at Awakening Our Democracy: Free Speech on Campus on November 1 (register here). If you have additional ideas for how we might strengthen our efforts to reject the messages of these speakers, short of barring student organizations from inviting them to campus, I welcome your sharing them.
Professor Suzanne B. Goldberg
Executive Vice President for University Life
Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law