Will Columbia University Students Respect Jim Gilchrist’s Right to Free Speech This Time?

By February 2, 2012

Recent articles in the Columbia Spectator address the recently announced plans of the Columbia University College Republicans (CUCRs) to bring Jim Gilchrist, the founder of the controversial Minuteman Project, to speak at Columbia this spring. Given the melee that ensued when he spoke at Columbia in 2006 (also as a guest of the CUCRs), this is no small event.

When Gilchrist spoke at Columbia on October 4, 2006, several protesters of Gilchrist’s and the Minutemen’s anti-illegal immigration views and tactics forcibly took the stage to disrupt the event. The protesters’ violence was roundly condemned, and several students were ultimately disciplined for their roles in the disruption. Yet while the protesters faced some consequences for their actions, the debacle continues to stand as a snapshot of all that has gone wrong with the quality of campus discourse today, with students—wrongly empowered by the false right not to be offended—seeing no harm in using forcible means to suppress speech and ideas with which they disagree. Adding further insult to free speech, such intolerant actions are frequently perpetrated in the name of preserving a more "tolerant" campus atmosphere. 

From the Spectator‘s coverage, it seems that Columbia students are determined to do better this time and are eager for a free exchange of ideas around Gilchrist’s controversial message. Spectator Senior Staff Writer Yasmin Gagne’s January 25 article notes that

Emily Tamkin, CC ’12, general manager of Columbia Political Union and a former Spectator editorial page editor, said, "We absolutely support CUCR and any other organization’s right to bring any speaker to campus that they feel would further political and civic engagement."

Columbia University College Democrats media director Sarah Gitlin, CC ’13, said that the Democrats were not opposed to the visit, despite opposing Gilchrist’s ideology.

"The Minutemen are obviously a group of very hateful vigilantes and we object strongly to any of their actions," she said, "but we do support free speech on campus and are not opposed to CU Republicans’ right to bring them on campus.

"We do hope that many people will show up to question them on their actions," she added.

Similarly, the Spectator‘s editorial board wrote that

Columbia’s institutional support and longtime dedication to academic freedom should preclude nobody-regardless of his views-from coming to campus and fostering dialogue. Extending an invitation is not an endorsement of the invitee’s opinions and Columbia’s reaction to previous speakers-such as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-shows that it is cognizant of this. CUCR is entirely within its rights to invite a public figure for discussion in an open arena and no group or individual should stop it from doing so.

These statements of principle are welcome, and do not preclude the right of those who fervently disagree with the Minutemen’s message to make sure their voices are part of the dialogue. 

Some potential problems still lie ahead for the CUCRs. The Spectator‘s January 25 article notes CUCR President Will Prasifka estimating that security for the event would cost $1,000 or more. Perhaps Prasifka is pulling that number from a hat, but perhaps also he is forecasting that turnout for the event-including protesters—would be significant, and thus require an able security presence to ensure the speaker’s safety. Should Gilchrist return to Columbia, and should Columbia decide that $1,000 is the true cost of the security needed, it had better know that it may not saddle the CUCRs with the costs. FIRE has on many occasions successfully fought back such punitive efforts, in which student groups are hit with outrageously high security fees for speakers deemed controversial- a practice which has the effect of deterring those from bringing speakers whose views may be unpopular on campus ("bankrupting free speech," as I once called it). Should Columbia pull such a trick here, we will be ready to come to the CUCRs’ defense.

And, should Columbia students once more resort to vigilantism (ironically, one of their chief charges against the Minutemen) in an effort to shut down campus discourse, FIRE will be there as well.

Schools: Columbia University