Northwestern Students Shut Down Speech as President Says First Amendment ‘Not Absolute’

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By Jillian Kay Melchior | 9:19 am, May 18, 2017

On the same day the president of Northwestern University told the Wall Street Journal it was sometimes appropriate to restrict speech on campus, disruptive students prevented an in-class speech by an official from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

An ICE spokeswoman was scheduled to talk to a Northwestern sociology class on Tuesday—one half of a two-part lesson, now cancelled, that would have also included a speech by an undocumented immigrant.

Protestors initially stood outside the classroom chanting “F**k ICE.” They were then admitted to the classroom, where they interrupted the talk and aggressively confronted both the ICE representative and the professor who had invited her, the student newspaper reported. The ICE officer left without completing her speech.

That same day, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, where he defended safe spaces and said that offensive speech targeting specific individuals or groups might, in some circumstances, be considered “assault,” not free speech.

“You want to protect the First Amendment, obviously, but it isn’t absolute,” Schapiro said. “People reduce it to slogans or free speech at all costs.”

Schapiro also said: “I will just say that if you shut down freedom of speech, you better have a really good reason. … I think if you shut down anything, you better be really sure that you have a moral and legal justification to do it. That’s my view.”

Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro

The protestors came from MEChA, a campus Chicano group; Black Lives Matter, the Immigrant Justice Project, the Asian American Pacific Coalition and various LGBT campus groups, the Daily Northwestern reported.

On Facebook, MEChA defended shutting down the ICE official’s talk:

Dialogue with any ICE official legitimizes their position as state actors of violence….The presence of an ICE PR agent whose sole purpose is to make ICE ‘look good’ and recruit students implies university complicity and encouragement of the actions of this organization. We do not engage in conversations with ICE in any way, shape or form regardless of their position.

Citing security and privacy concerns, Beth Redbird, the professor who invited the ICE official to speak, said she had cancelled a scheduled talk by an undocumented immigrant. Her class focuses on “inequality in American society with an emphasis on race, class and gender.”

In a discussion with students, Redbird defended her decision to invite the ICE representative, the Daily Northwestern reported. “All they did was come here today to answer questions so you know what’s going on, so that you are informed and so you can make decisions. If you want to make change in a community, you need to know what’s going on,” she said.

In a joint statement, Schapiro and Northwestern’s provost said they were “deeply disappointed” in student’s “disrespectful, inappropriate” behavior Tuesday.

“While we understand the point of view expressed by the students protesting the guest lecturers invited to speak here, the resulting disturbance not only limited the academic inquiry central to our campus, it also forced invited speakers to leave and violated the rights of other enrolled students who were present to learn. … Free expression must be protected and should be countered with more debate, close examination and critical thinking—not censorship,” their statement said.

The university also said it was reviewing the facts around the protests so it could take “appropriate action.”

Earlier this week, the Northwestern chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine hosted Rasmea Odeh, a woman convicted for a terrorist attack; her group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had planted a bomb in a box of candy, which killed two college students when it detonated a grocery store in Jerusalem. Pro-Israel groups on campus condemned the event as “an affront to the sanctity of life,” saying it “crosses a moral line.”

In a statement, Northwestern Hillel announced it would hold a silent vigil for Odeh’s victims outside of the venue. “This will be a silent, non-confrontational vigil,” the group said. “We will not attempt to disrupt the event in any way. Our goal is not to protest free speech, but instead to mourn the victims of the convicted terrorist who is speaking on our campus.”

Schapiro joined about 150 students, professors and staffers who attended the vigil.

Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.

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