With great shock and even greater sadness I read media accounts of protestors disrupting a recent presentation at Washington College in Chestertown.
The presentation featured Dr. Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. While Professor George has deeply held conservative beliefs which he does not shy away from expressing, he is also a frequent conversation partner with Cornel West, a progressive professor and political activist. They have appeared together at colleges and universities around the country, arguing for civil dialogue and a broad conception of campus freedom of speech as essential to the truth-seeking mission of academic institutions. Of his longtime friend West has said — “Robby and I struggle over many issues, but at the deepest human level, it’s hard to find anyone with his kind of integrity and genuine concern for others.”
Progressive Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan has said this about Professor George — “He is one of the nation’s most respected legal theorists and the respect he has gained is due to his sheer brilliance, the analytic power of his arguments, the range of his knowledge, a deeply principled conviction, and a profound and enduring integrity.”
No stranger to threats of bodily harm, Professor George was once targeted with death threats for views on abortion.
So how was Professor George treated during his presentation at Washington College? Extremely poorly is an understatement.
The protesters at his presentation did not quietly carry signs and engage in civil dialogue with Professor George following his remarks. Instead, media at the event reported the following: “The protesters marched in, with campus security allowing them passage. Shouting from the protesters started right away, breaking up the professor’s talk.” The media also reported the protesters waved flags, waved signs, blew whistles, played music, and danced. They did not stand down until Professor George’s presentation ended prematurely and he [George] was escorted from the room.
After this shameful treatment Professor George observed that in all his years visiting numerous colleges and universities including Berkeley, Yale, and Harvard (hardly bastions of conservatism), he never had this happen before. After this event, he observed that “When intimidation works, they’ll continue to do it,”
Indeed, they will. Intimidation at this event did work and there is no reason to believe the protestors will not do it again with anyone who does not embrace their views or asks them to consider other views.
That being the case the following questions need to be addressed by the leadership of Washington College.
What has been or will be the college’s response to the protestors willful disregard for the following Washington College core values? “We share these values of our founding patron, George Washington: integrity, determination, curiosity, civility, leadership, and moral courage. We develop in our students’ habits of analytic thought and clear communication, aesthetic insight, ethical sensitivity, and civic responsibility.
What has been or will be the college’s response to the following comment by one protestor at the event after an email was sent to all students reminding them that it would be a violation of the Student Honor Code to disrupt a speaker? “Are you going to tell me that WAC (Washington College) can expel every single one of us? Absolutely (expletive) not!”.
Why did campus security decide not to intervene with timely and appropriate steps to deal with the protesters well before their disruptive behavior resulted in a premature end of the event?
Post event a college spokesperson said, “the protesters took issue with homophobic and transphobic statements that Professor George has made in the past.” Is the spokesperson implying that Washington College agrees with the protester’s interpretations of and opinions on statements made by Professor George in the past?
How committed is Washington College to free speech, civil discourse, and ensuring students are exposed to a wide range of views that may challenge how they think and what they think?
One can hope that going forward Washington College will walk their talk on their core principles and student honor code to help ensure this recent tyranny of the loud will never happen again.
David Reel is a public affairs/public relations consultant who serves as a trusted advisor on strategy, advocacy, and media matters who resides in Easton.