My pro-free speech views made me the target of a smear campaign at Vassar College
My lecture against squeezing out free speech from colleges got me smeared. The students who smeared me got a safe space complete with coloring books and markers.
I became the campus-wide object of hate at Vassar College for defending free speech
It will come no surprise that campuses face a free-speech crisis at many levels.
From speech codes to kangaroo campus courts to lack of faculty political diversity, non-progressive voices are being pushed off campus.
But there is an aspect of the free speech problem that gets most of the headlines because of the viral videos.
From UC Berkeley in the west to Middlebury College in the northeast, and at dozens of colleges and universities in between, we have seen speakers disrupted, shouted-down, shut-down and threatened. Almost all such speakers were right of center, and almost all of the perpetrators were progressive students.
At Cornell University, where I teach at the law school, former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum was heckled and Tea Party activist Michael Johns was forced to hold his appearance at a secret location due to threats of disruption.
I have watched these anti-free speech mobs from a distance, and from a news perspective. At my website, Legal Insurrection, I’ve written about many dozens of such incidents which started with attacks on Israeli and pro-Israeli speakers going back almost a decade and now have migrated into the mainstream.
I have given many lectures on campuses, mostly focusing on opposing the academic boycott of Israel and on the subject of anti-Semitism.
But I’m not a household name. And I’m not particularly controversial, although I do stick out at Cornell as one of only a small number of openly politically conservative faculty members.
So despite my campus speeches and conservative politics, I never really thought the anti-free speech mob would come for me. Until they did, at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
I previously spoke at Vassar in 2014 about academic freedom and the Israel boycott, at the invitation of the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union. That small group, numbering fewer than 20 students on a campus of 2400 students, invited me back to speak on Oct. 25, 2017, on the topic of “hate speech” and free speech on campus.
That topic was important to me, particularly after the Charlottesville torch march and subsequent riots and killing of a young woman. I feared that the normal tension between free speech on campus and the desire to create an atmosphere where all groups would feel welcome, would sway campus politics towards greater speech restrictions.
My speech was to be titled “Hate Speech” is Still Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville. That title, which is an accurate statement of the law, focused on the dilemma of constitutional rights versus campus inclusiveness goals. Through clerical error, VCLU filed for funding of the speech under a different name, An Examination of Hate Speech and Free Speech.
Regardless of title, the planned discussion of “hate speech” as protected speech set in motion a smear campaign against me and attempts to stop my speech that left me feeling like I was going through an out-of-body experience.
A student activist group at Vassar, with the help of Vassar student government, spread false claims to the entire student body that event information was shared by me “on multiple white nationalist websites,” that there was “active encouragement for other white nationalists to come to the event,” and that there was a need to “protect the people that this speaker has targeted in the past.” None of this was true.
Two forums were held attended by over 200 students, faculty and staff, for the purpose of planning how to prevent ME from harming students. The claim reportedly was made at that forum that the “speaker himself is trying to incite violence.” That was a lie without any factual basis.
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The student activists put together a research team to pour though my thousands of blog posts in order to falsely portray me as the equivalent of a Richard Spencer-type character. Being mainstream right-of-center became the equivalent of being a neo-Nazi or White Supremacist.
So complete was the demonization that one event poster was defaced by putting horns on my head.
Students put together a safety plan for the day of my speech that reads like parody, but was real. It included the now-common “safe spaces,” but also safety and emotional support teams. The Library was designated one such safe space and “will provide coloring books, zine kits, markers, construction paper etc.,” per a campus email. In case students had trouble finding a safe space, “Safe(r) spaces will be occupied by designated Vassar students with glowsticks.”
This all was surreal.
And then the Vassar student government moved in to kill the event, demanding in a letter from the Executive Board that Vassar’s president prevent me from appearing:
“We strongly urge you, on account of students undergoing serious and real pain, to take our words and ideas seriously, and work towards breaching the contract, ultimately preventing him from coming to campus on Wednesday... We urge you to think critically about these things. Rather than just engaging the abstract, we urge you to understand how these ideas have physical implications for the safety and well-being of real students on this campus..."
I was permitted to appear, under heavy security.
The event itself was as wonderful as the demonization campaign was awful. The room was at capacity of 200 students, with an overflow crowd in the hallway. The students listened to me discuss constitutional principles of free speech, how those principles do and do not apply at private colleges and how we should aspire to make campuses the most free places, not the least free.
There were no disruptions, not even from the 2-3 dozen students dressed all in black as a protest. Almost all students stayed to the end of the 45 minute lecture and 120-minute Q&A.
This Vassar experience left me shaken.
Because I committed to discussing free speech and the constitutional protection of even hateful speech, I was made the object of hate by student activists who whipped the campus into a frenzy.
Why would any right-of-center student, faculty member or guest speaker want to endure what I had to go through? For that matter, why would any liberal defender of free speech want to undergo such a smear campaign?
And isn’t that the point? While I was permitted to speak, the message was sent that support for the 1st Amendment and freedom of speech is not welcome. To get to speak on these sensitive yet critical topics means you have to run the gauntlet of anti-free speech progressives.
The mob didn’t stop me from speaking. But the damage was done.
William A. Jacobson is a clinical professor of law at Cornell University, and director of the Cornell Securities Law Clinic. He blogs at Legal Insurrection.