Illinois College Cancels (Postpones?) Law Professor’s Speech about Guantanamo Bay Detainees

By on December 10, 2009

Score another sad point for the power of the mob and the "heckler’s veto." Last week, McHenry County College (Crystal Lake, Illinois) "canceled" a speaking event by Nothern Illinois University Professor Marc Falkoff because of reports of a large and possibly unruly crowd of protesters. According to his online bio,

Since 2004, [Falkoff] has been a principal lawyer in the habeas representation of seventeen prisoners being held by the U.S. military at Guantánamo Bay on suspicion of involvement with terrorism.  For this work, he was named the Charles F.C. Ruff Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year in 2005 by Covington & Burling, LLP.  He received the Frederick Douglass Human Rights Award in 2007 from the Southern Center for Human Rights, and the Bill of Rights in Action Award in 2008 from the Constitutional Rights Foundation in Chicago.

Falkoff was scheduled weeks ahead to speak on December 3, 2009, for a student group, the Student Peace Action Network (SPAN). But on November 23, Crystal Lake citizen Army Spc. Jason A. McLeod, aged 22, died near Pashmul, Afghanistan, "of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit with mortar fire." In a terrible coincidence of timing, the wake for McLeod was scheduled for the same day as Falkoff’s lecture.

When Falkoff’s lecture was announced in the Northwest Herald (McHenry County, Illinois) on November 27, 2009, the news did not go over well at all. Some irate commenters on the article and the associated blog post promised to amass a group of angry protesters and even disrupt the event, writing lines including, "Time these Peace weirdos had a little disruption and acting up at their event."

Thus, according to the Daily Herald (Chicago), the lecture was canceled just two days ahead of time because of the likelihood of a large crowd of angry, disruptive protesters. Falkoff acknowledged that people had contacted him and "threatened to shut down the event by showing up en masse-comments he said made him fear for his family and himself." In another story on December 3, the Daily Herald reported that "hundreds" had been expected to show up and that the event was not canceled, just postponed until "January or February."

In the comments on the first article, Falkoff elaborated:

The event was scheduled to take place today, but now, after I’ve received a slew of threats of violence to myself and my family, it’s not going to happen.

In blog postings and in expletive-filled messages left on my personal cell phone, I was called a traitor, asked how I slept at night, and told that I would burn in hell. My clients were called murderers, and it was suggested that perhaps only the deaths of some of my family members would get my attention. After consultation with the Crystal Lake Police Department, the College understandably chose to cancel my talk.

It’s a shame. A handful of thugs, purporting to be patriots, have silenced the community’s right to hear a different perspective on our national detention policy.

Falkoff gave a similar statement to the Northwest Herald for a December 3 article:

"No one said, ‘I’m going to kill you or your family,’" Falkoff said. "But one of them said something along the lines of, ‘maybe it’s going to take your own family members being in a tragic accident for you to understand,’ or something like that."

The sponsoring group, SPAN, was cut out of the conversation about postponing the event. Molly McQueen, SPAN’s founder, told the Daily Herald she did not request the cancellation or postponement: "I don’t want to let people shut down our events, so that’s important to get our message out and not let people intimidate us."

Not only that, but McQueen apparently was given a blatantly false pretense for the postponement. She explained the false reasoning to the Northwest Herald for a December 2 article:

McQueen said she was not allowed to participate in a meeting Tuesday with faculty advisers and college administrators. But McQueen later was told that the event was postponed because the students failed to arrange for a faculty adviser to attend Thursday. (Emphasis added.)

Come on, McHenry County College. Why make up a reason when you had perfectly good reasons in the form of apparently credible threats of disruption, if not violence? (Falkoff told the Northwest Herald that he would have contacted the police because of the calls he had received, if the event had not been canceled.) Why wasn’t the real reason good enough? The December 3 Northwest Herald article continued:

Tony Miksa, [McHenry County College's] vice president of academic and student affairs, said college personnel received several intense phone calls about the event Tuesday. Those calls made them question whether the planned security detail could handle a crowd larger than organizers originally anticipated. Miksa said he was unsure how many officers Crystal Lake police had originally planned to provide but said he and other faculty decided to postpone the event so that more staff could attend.

Let us hope that the event really is rescheduled as promised. In interviews with the Daily Herald for its two articles, Falkoff commented further:

"This is the first time an event has ever been canceled," he said. "This is mob rule, it’s remarkable. A university is a sanctuary for free speech and robust debate, and I would hope the college would come out and say how intolerable it is what happened."

"There’s a lot that I would have talked about and I would have been happy to listen to questions from skeptics and we could have had a conversation," he said. "But instead, none of that is going to be heard."

This is a disappointing result for the American tradition of robust debate.

Northwest Herald columnist Cyndi Wyss provides some additional insight and some wise words:

In e-mails, online postings, harassing calls made to Falkoff, and in calls to MCC, many of those offended by Falkoff’s topic indicated that they would have shown up in force. And if the behavior exhibited at a past veterans against war session is any indication, civility would be too much to hope for.

[...]

Selecting speakers who espouse a certain viewpoint is this group’s right, just as it is the right of conservative groups to host events with speakers more to their liking. In fact, intelligent, reasonable people might attend some of both, and walk away with at least a greater understanding of others’ ideological underpinnings, if not a shifted world view.

That is the beauty of this great country, isn’t it? We are allowed to be ruffled by all political winds, not just select breezes.

Some clearly don’t think Falkoff has the right to talk about his view that at least some of the people who’ve been interminably detained at Guantanamo Bay-as yet without trial or charge-are innocent. Further, they think they have the right, even the duty, to attempt to stop his presentation.

Such efforts dishonor the very people whom this brand of opponent believes it is somehow protecting-those who have fought and even died for our freedoms. Remember, those freedoms include the freedom of speech.

Thank you for these words, Cyndi Wyss. FIRE has been making a similar argument for a long time-for instance, after students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst used disruptive tactics to silence a conservative speaker and after students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill turned to violence to silence a speech against illegal immigration. Fortunately, Northwest Herald executive editor Chris Krug agrees with you. Crystal Lake needs more voices like yours.