Outside Thursday’s planned speech by Manhattan Institute fellow and author Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna College, more than 200 protesters linked arms, blocked entrance to the event, and yelled “Shut it down!”
This tactic proved effective, as Claremont officials determined that the risk of violence if they attempted to clear a path for the audience to attend the event was too high. According to The Washington Post:
Blocking buildings on the California campus is an arrest-able offense, but seeing the sizable crowd, campus officials decided not to force the issue and instead live-streamed Mac Donald’s event.
“We jointly concluded that any forced interventions or arrests would have created unsafe conditions for students, faculty, staff, and guests,” Claremont McKenna College President Hiram E. Chodosh said Friday in a statement. “I take full responsibility for the decision to err on the side of these overriding safety considerations.”
With the vast majority of her would-be audience physically prevented from attending the speech, Mac Donald, who Inside Higher Ed notes had “a path to the building that was not visible to those protesting,” was ultimately able to speak, but “to a largely empty room.” (Claremont did work to livestream her speech on the internet.)
A group claiming responsibility for the protests said “Mac Donald is representative of the growing normalization of white supremacist fascist ideologies,” according to an anonymous statement linked by Inside Higher Ed.
“The way fascism is masked as ‘free speech’ is not any ‘normal’ exercise of constitutional power,” the group wrote. “White supremacists such as Heather Mac Donald claim protection from free speech as an exercise of constitutional rights forgetting that the Constitution was created by slave owners.”
This incident at Claremont is only the latest in a recent trend of controversial speakers’ appearances on campus being disrupted, cut short, or even canceled altogether because of violence, or fears of it, from ideological opponents.
In February, then-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was unable to speak at UC Berkeley because of protests outside that erupted into violence. Berkeley police decided it was too risky to let him speak. Last month at Middlebury College in Vermont, a disruptive audience forced sociologist Charles Murray to give most of his speech via video link, and ultimately Murray was forced to flee dinner with Middlebury professor Allison Stanger after a Middlebury administrator reportedly rushed in to warn them that demonstrators had located them and were on their way. (Stanger ultimately ended up at the hospital for a neck injury she says she sustained when a demonstrator grabbed her by the hair.)
Claremont administrators’ decision that attempting to ensure Mac Donald’s speech could go forward as planned would create too big a risk of violence from her ideological opponents only highlights the danger inherent in allowing violent attempts to silence speakers to be successful. Administrators surely considered the violence at Berkeley and Middlebury when making the decision not to challenge those who successfully blocked access to Mac Donald’s speech, and made what they thought was the prudent decision to avoid the possibility of people at Claremont being hurt. Unfortunately, by doing so, they handed another win to what appears to be a growing movement of students willing to use or threaten violent tactics to silence their opponents. In turn, they made the repeated use of these tactics all the more likely.
Maintaining dialogue in a free society depends on the willingness of all sides to refrain from using violence or the threat of it to advance their agendas, and, failing that, of the authorities to ensure all sides are able to peacefully express their ideas. When this system breaks down, huge problems will quickly and inevitably result. FIRE is looking into the incident at Claremont McKenna College, and will have more details as and when they become available.