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DePaul Rightly Condemns the ‘Heckler’s Veto’

DePaul University is the latest site of the “heckler’s veto” being deployed to shut down a campus speaker. This time, the target was Milo Yiannopoulos, the conservative commentator and Breitbart contributor, whose controversial statements on campus issues such as trigger warnings and “hate speech” have been a source of contention on other campuses where he’s spoken this year. Fortunately, DePaul’s president, Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, has rightly condemned the effort to shut down Yiannopoulous’ speech.

In a statement, Holtschneider apologized to the campus chapter of the College Republicans, which hosted Yiannopoulous’ talk:

On behalf of the university, I apologize to the DePaul College Republicans. ​They deserved an opportunity to hear their speaker uninterrupted, and were denied it.

As has been widely reported, and evidenced by video recordings from the event, some protesters had no intention of letting Yiannopoulos complete his discussion.

DePaul student newspaper The DePaulia describes the disruption thusly:

Milo Yiannopoulos, a technology reporter for Breitbart and a self-proclaimed “internet supervillain,” visited DePaul in an event held by DePaul’s College Republicans. The event, held in the Student Center, hit max capacity of 550 attendees, most of them supporters of Yiannopoulos’ outspoken conservative message.

But during the rally, a group of protesters stormed the stage and interrupted Yiannopoulos, riling up the crowd. One of the protesters was Ed Ward, a DePaul alum who founded Men of Vision and Empowerment, who ran up on stage about 15 minutes after Yiannopoulos began speaking.

Ward stormed the stage with a whistle and yelled “this man’s an idiot!” while members in the crowd yelled “get a job!” Shortly after, Ward was joined onstage by DePaul student Kayla Johnson — who had climbed onstage and been removed before the event began — and the noise from the crowd and the protesters drowned out Yiannopoulos.

Reason’s Robby Soave writes of those same events:

In video footage of the event, a female protester can clearly be seen striking Yiannopoulos in the face. This took place during the Q and A, which was interrupted by the female student and another activist, student Edward Ward. They were joined by ten other irate students. Yiannopoulos’s supporters tried to stop them, and police and security were called.

Torch readers can watch video of the event below:

The DePaulia also reports that Ward flatly refused to apologize for the disruption and eventual shutdown of the event:

“Let me be perfectly clear, I do not apologize for my actions on DePaul’s campus,” Ward said. “I don’t apologize for refusing to allow a racist, bigot to spew his hatred on DePaul’s campus. I don’t apologize for shutting the event down. I don’t apologize.”

Such tactics, of course, are wholly unacceptable and entirely opposed to the principles of freedom of expression that universities like DePaul should stand for. It’s one thing to refuse to listen to or countenance opinions you vehemently disagree with. It’s quite another to take it into your own hands to ensure that no one else is able to listen to those opinions for themselves. As FIRE’s Ari Cohn told Inside Higher Ed, “We’ve seen protests against events that were completely nondisruptive shut down inappropriately … [b]ut if those protests are disruptive to the extent where the students they are protesting against are not able to carry out their event, that's when the university has to step in.”

At the very least, universities must make clear that such intolerant and disruptive methods are unacceptable. Fortunately, Holtschneider, DePaul’s president, did just that with his statement:

Yesterday’s speaker was invited to speak at DePaul, and those who interrupted the speech were wrong to do so.  Universities welcome speakers, give their ideas a respectful hearing, and then respond with additional speech countering the ideas. I was ashamed for DePaul University when I saw a student rip the microphone from the hands of the conference moderator and wave it in the face of our speaker.

Elsewhere, though, there are questions as to how the DePaul administration handled the controversy as it escalated. Campus Reform points out that while a dozen or more security personnel were in the room, they did nothing to control the protests when they threatened the College Republicans’ ability to conduct their event. Then there’s the fact of the security personnel in the first place. The College Fix reports that the College Republicans were required to hire 12 more security guards than they had originally agreed to, at a cost of $1,440 to the organization. Eventually, The College Fix also reports, this number was reduced to eight, though the group was still tasked with covering their costs.

This is, at best, questionable. If a university determines that additional security is required in order for a student organization to safely hold an event, it’s the duty of the university to provide it, not the students. Otherwise, protesting students, by threatening to show up in large numbers and disrupt an event, can burden speech by getting an event’s organizers saddled with insurmountable security fees.

These concerns make clear that there are still questions for DePaul to answer, and FIRE is monitoring the situation. At the least, however, we’re pleased to see that the university has stated in clear terms that the disruptive tactics on display at the College Republicans’ event are unacceptable and unworthy of the university.

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