Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Columbia Finally Acts, Nobody Happy

The students at Columbia University who disrupted Minuteman leader Jim Gilchrist's speech have received their punishment: a slap-on-the-wrist kind of probation for three students, and the censure of three students for unknown reasons. Greg Lukianoff of FIRE argues that the punishment is inadequate because "It was an attempt to silence a controversial speaker. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that." There is, in fact, a great deal of doubt as to whether the intent or effect of the protest was to prevent the speech from happening. If you look at the video, the protestors took up a place at the opposite end of the stage from Gilchrist and unfurled their banner. I believe that these students expected to disrupt the speech for a minute, make their point, and be ordered off the stage under threat of arrest, and thrown out of the lecture hall while Gilchrist resumed his speech. The fisticuffs that followed appeared to result from Gilchrist’s thugs trying to physically remove the protesters without warning them to leave or waiting for campus security to act. After that, the speech was cancelled and the students, to their apparent surprise and unfortunate jubilation, were able to stop Gilchrist from speaking.

This doesn’t excuse the students in the Idiot Socialist Organization. Rushing the stage, even for a temporary protest, is both stupid and prohibited. However, a short disruption of a speech is indeed a minor violation, and the probation punishment they received seems to fit the crime. The suspension of three Latino students (one who never went on stage, and another apparently for being an outspoken leader after the event) is deeply disturbing. (Columbia’s apparent violation of due process in punishing the students, the slow process, and the failure to address the violence on stage, should be a concern to everyone.) Columbia owes everyone an explanation for its actions.

The real puzzle here is why Columbia failed to act in order to allow the speech to continue, and why Columbia has not arranged for Gilchrist to return to campus with adequate protection for his speech. Merely reimbursing the College Republicans for the costs of the event is not enough. Whether it is Jim Gilchrist or Ward Churchill, a speaker banned from college campuses by protests or threats should always be re-invited by colleges to prove that the heckler’s veto will never restrict free speech on campus.

CORRECTION: I was incorrect earlier in reading the Columbia Spectator story too quickly. There is no suspension for the three students, but it is a step up in the disciplinary process: "If a censured student is found in violation of the rules a second time, he or she is automatically suspended from the University for at least a semester or, if the violation is serious, is expelled."

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