A few days ago, I received an email from the Executive Vice President for University Life, Professor Suzanne Goldberg, indicating that she was investigating “a complaint regarding [my] involvement in an interruption of a guest speaker at Columbia on Oct. 10.” At least 15 people out of over 200 students who protested the Columbia University College Republicans’ decision to invite Tommy Robinson to campus received this email.
Despite one recent op-ed suggesting that we failed to do our homework on Robinson, we were acutely aware of his notoriety as a racist who equates Islam with terrorism and of his spewing of misogynistic, hateful speech laced with violence. We also did not interrupt his speech as intrusively as alleged. In fact, Robinson had no prepared speech. His recorded and photographed Skype chat with CUCR offers evidence of this fact. And during the question and answer session, Robinson engaged vociferously with the crowd, responding to various questions that were posed to him.
While most of the commentary on what unfolded on Oct. 10 centers on the freedom of expression provisions entrenched in the First Amendment, I want to suggest that this characterization of our resistance to CUCR’s invitation is far too narrowly constructed. University President Lee Bollinger has argued that “the First Amendment has become much more than a legal doctrine. It is a core part of the American identity.” Consequently, he asserts that this core dimension of American identity must be protected at Columbia: “We’re just not going to be a place that allows speakers to be shut down or disrupted. We’re just not going to be that kind of place.”
Similarly, CUCR’s Facebook page also invokes the rhetoric of free speech and American values, and states: “Tommy [Robinson] … has been jailed unfairly due to his politics, which should frighten any American who values freedom of speech.” Setting aside the fact that the Republicans’ characterization of Robinson is patently false because he was in fact jailed for passport and mortgage fraud rather than politics, the invocation of free speech by Bollinger and CUCR, as well as their characterization of free speech as an American value, obfuscates deeper underlying concerns about power and violence. We must start by recognizing that their conception of American identity, which has its roots in colonialism, slavery, and violence, taints the idealistic and romanticized principle of free speech as a core dimension of American identity. By interrupting the current discourse surrounding free speech at Columbia—rather than Robinson’s talk—we seek to offer an alternative interpretation of CUCR’s invitation of white supremacists onto campus. In this way, their cries of ”free speech” become a proxy for upholding racism, patriarchy, and oppression, and can be conceived as a mechanism for perpetuating violence—both structural and epistemic—by those in power and by those who control the First Amendment narrative.
As one of the protesters who stood with a placard in the front of the room where Robinson’s image was projected onto a screen, I was not only exercising my right to free speech, I was defending my right to exist and to be recognized as human. Prior to Robinson’s talk, I filed a formal complaint of discrimination and harassment with Columbia University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, arguing that “Mr. Robinson’s invitation to speak on campus not only violates my dignity but constitutes an act of violence, [and] is a form of harassment and discrimination. While I recognize Mr. Robinson’s right to free speech, his presence on campus (albeit via Skype) is a threat to my safety and security since his speech may encourage fellow students to act in a violent way toward me.”
During my engagement with the EOAA, it became apparent that Columbia adopts a narrow conception of free speech that ignores the violent physicality of hate speech: Lips move, sound travels, and words penetrate. And sometimes, these words constitute an act of violence or result in physical forms of violence. However, it is the University’s position that hate speech should be countered with equally opposing views so that the student community can decide for themselves what they want to believe. While this neutral approach may seem reasonable, the University ignores the fact that not all voices have equal power and that opposing voices are not equally heard. It assumes that students presented with two perspectives will choose the most well-reasoned argument, but disregards the climate of hatred and victimization within which these perspectives are offered.
But the University also engages in acts that raise questions about its neutrality. Before meeting with me to hear my side of the story, Provost John Coatsworth sent an email stating that because I “may have violated the Rules of University Conduct … [I] will not be admitted to any other events organized by CUCR.” This seems to be a blatant disregard of Columbia’s own rules of freedom of expression, and shows a willingness to ban students from University events before due process is followed. The actions taken by the Provost support my argument that the principle of free speech is employed selectively and has been appropriated to entrench the University’s power.
Columbia’s inability and unwillingness to engage with the violence of hate speech under the guise of academic freedom is a shameful and disgraceful dereliction of its duty toward students and the broader surrounding community. It exposes the University for what it really is: an ivory tower on a hill, disconnected from its students, detached from its neighboring communities, and out of touch with the violent reality that we as black bodies deal with every day.
The author is a doctoral fellow at Teachers College and an adjunct faculty member at the Law School. He writes in his personal capacity.
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