The Columbia University Democrats protested a conference that considered marriage and family, contesting a featured address at the event that argued marriage may only be between a man and a woman.
The Family in Modern Society Conference at Columbia University, featuring scholars whose research argued for the “importance of family to the continued success of American society,” prompted members of the student group to arrive early in the morning on Saturday outside Lerner Hall, where they passed out fliers throughout the afternoon.
But the bulk of the day’s activity came in the form of an in-conference silent protest against a speech delivered by Sherif Girgis, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Princeton and J.D. candidate at Yale, whose article on the subject was originally published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy.
As Girgis began his speech, CU Dems members and other students held up signs expressing their support for same-sex marriage, with slogans such as “Family is family, love and devotion are always equal” and “People like you are why LGBTQ teens are five times as likely to attempt suicide.”
“The point was to tell the rest of the community that this was not the general consensus of the campus,” said CU Dems activist Nikita Ash, BC ’16.
In his speech, Girgis argued that while people’s life choices and partners should be respected, redefining the institution of marriage for same-sex couples based on emotional connection opens the doors for other redefinitions that include, for example, “threples” (three-way couples) and other uncommon life companionships.
Girgis also addressed the issue of equality, saying that preventing certain people from getting married was not discriminatory, but rather indicative of a definition of marriage that precluded homosexual or polygamous relationships.
“We don’t think that denial of marriage is a denial of equality,” Girgis said. “Using marriage law as a stamp of social approval comes from a certain vision of marriage.”
Although they were vocal in their disapproval of Girgis’s message, members of the CU Dems stressed that their silent protest was not an attempt to smother free speech, but rather to peacefully express disagreement.
“We won’t stifle, but we will let it be known that we do not find this agreeable,” CU Dems member Melissa Quintana, CC ’16, said. “It was very respectful, and we were not infringing on their rights while exercising our own.”
Some members of the audience, however, criticized the tactics of CU Dems, and said they felt a critical and intellectual discussion was being treated in an emotional, knee-jerk manner.
Jamie Boothe, CC ’15, argued that because the conference was a space set aside for intellectual discussion, it was hard to justify protesting during the conference itself.
“The actual [outside] protest I think is fine, and protesting is about as Columbian as Lit Hum,” Boothe said. On the other hand, he said, “Once you enter that room, you’re entering an intellectual space and have a duty to be there only if it’s for intellectual and critical discourse.”
Despite some controversy, others in attendance said that they felt that Girgis’ address and the question-and-answer session that followed were of a high intellectual caliber.
One of the earlier speakers, Paul E. Kerry, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, praised the civility of discourse throughout the day.
Luke Foster, CC ’15, a Spectator opinion columnist who also helped publicize the conference, agreed with Kerry.
“I was worried from the tone of the Facebook conversations that it would be vitriolic, but I was impressed by the bearing and critical discussion,” he said. “Everyone benefits from hearing the other side.”