On October 10, Columbia University College Republicans hosted Tommy Robinson, the notorious founder of the English Defense League, in a lecture theater in Lerner Hall.
Of course, Robinson could not actually be there in person, as he had once tried to enter the United States by illegally using a passport that was not his own. The conviction, which ordered him to serve 10 months in jail, also means that he is effectively banned from this country.
Although relatively unknown in the United States, Robinson is infamous for his founding of the EDL—effectively a violent street gang that wants Muslims banned from the United Kingdom. Its members have been associated with outright fascist groups and its marches are heavily promoted on white supremacist websites such as Stormfront.
The irony of his conviction, which renders him unable to enter the United States, is not lost on immigrant students here at Columbia who are dealing with new laws and a hostile political environment designed to keep immigrants out of the country—especially for those who are Muslim.
Here’s some more irony for you: Robinson has been convicted of mortgage fraud, brawling with other football fans, assaulting a fellow EDL member, and breaking bail conditions. This, from the man who tries to drum up an irrational fear of Muslims by calling them criminals.
Robinson also does not use his real name, Stephen Lennon, presumably because it sounds Irish, a group that most of his former supporters in the EDL detest.
This is the violence-inducing bigot CUCR has brought, now for a second occasion, to Columbia via video link. Members of the student group have argued that they merely want to hear many viewpoints and that they do not necessarily agree with him, but still think it is important to hear him out. They are against what many “alt-right” trolls call the echo chamber of the left. Hearing different viewpoints is part of freedom of speech, they claim.
Yet on Tuesday evening, CUCR abruptly shut down entrance to the event, as the lecture theater was being packed with students who had come to challenge Robinson’s views. This left the majority of the seats empty and hundreds of people outside.
It appears that CUCR was trying to engineer an environment that was more favorable to their speaker by refusing entry to those who wanted to challenge Robinson and ask him hard, uncomfortable questions.
In spite of their call for dialogue, CUCR’s actions do not reflect a genuine interest in free speech. This convenient framing is merely a discursive strategy to justify the invitation of a bigoted, violent criminal to talk at Columbia. In fact, in the name of free speech, this approach to politics infringes on the rights of other Columbia students to attend a University-sanctioned event. It also implicitly supports the imposition of policies that seek to discriminate against and effectively silence Muslims, undocumented immigrants, black individuals, women, and other minorities.
When students were suddenly refused entry I heard somebody retort: “What’s wrong? Does Tommy need a safe space?”
When outspoken opposition to such bigoted politics is able to gain a platform, there is a serious risk of doxing, harassment, and violent threats. As just one example of hundreds of similar cases in the past few months, Drexel University Professor George Ciccariello-Maher has recently had his classes suspended and has been placed on administrative leave after Drexel was inundated with thousands of anonymous threats in response to his outspoken, anti-white supremacist tweets and comments.
Ciccariello-Maher has, rightly, pointed out that the right wing is the “real campus thought police.” Yet will CUCR defend his right to freedom of speech or the right of his students to a critical education? Would they invite him to Columbia so that they can fulfil their stated goal of hearing different viewpoints? If Ciccariello-Maher is eventually fired, I can only assume that an emboldened “alt-right” will soon turn its sights on outspoken Columbia University professors as well.
Discourse surrounding freedom of speech seems to me to be merely a smokescreen used by a group of fascist-sympathising students set on building a movement bent on ridding our university of the most oppressed groups in our society.
This is a real, tangible threat to our safety and well-being. What is at stake is not only who gets the right to speak, but also who wields power in our society. It is no coincidence that the politically vital Columbia University has now become the battleground between the forces that silence and oppress those of us willing to risk our own safety to stand up against this growing existential threat.
The author is a Ph.D. Candidate in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies at Columbia University. He previously worked as an investigative journalist and political analyst in South Africa.
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