Administrative discomfort — and about 40 form letters — were the apparent basis for the cancelation of an in-person appearance by a pro-Palestinian speaker in October, according to records FIRE received this week from the University of Vermont.
At the time, the university publicly said it could not host the event because of safety and security concerns, but when pressed, did not offer any of the specifics behind those concerns, or explain how the university had tried to address them before deciding to cancel. Now, after a FIRE records request, the picture of university censorship is becoming clearer: The university appears to have used vague safety concerns as a pretext to cancel an event they were concerned would do “harm” to the university community because of the speaker’s views.
Palestinian activist Mohammed El-Kurd was scheduled to speak on campus on Oct. 26 as part of a lecture series sponsored by the university’s English and Sociology departments. But on Oct. 21, UVM’s Division of Safety and Compliance informed event organizers the event could not proceed in person, via an unsigned email informing them the university believed it “cannot adequately provide safety and security,” citing “global, national, and local events.” Publicly, the university issued an opaque statement explaining that, based on “conversations over the past week with community members, campus partners and public safety officials,” it had determined “holding the event on campus this week raises safety and security concerns that cannot be sufficiently mitigated.”
The university appears to have used vague safety concerns as a pretext to cancel an event they were concerned would do “harm” to the university community because of the speaker’s views.
FIRE wrote UVM on Oct. 25, urging it to restore the event to its originally scheduled format and location, and insisting that the university show its work to justify refusing to host the event on campus. If there were genuine security concerns, we explained, UVM needed to demonstrate that — and show why it could not have sufficiently addressed those concerns so as to allow the event to proceed as scheduled. The university could not, we argued, allow anticipated negative reactions to El-Kurd’s speech to cancel the event, as doing so would effectuate an impermissible heckler’s veto.
Yet even as FIRE wrote the university urging transparency, UVM repeated the same opaque statement, citing unidentified “safety and security” reasons to local media. And records we later obtained reflect that, when a journalist pressed UVM to elaborate on those concerns, it demurred, claiming safety and security decisions are internal, and saying its original rationale would stand.
We, meanwhile, filed a public records request after we did not hear back from UVM and the event proceeded online instead of in its originally planned in-person format. Our request sought to uncover whether the unspecified security concerns had any validity, asking, among other things, for records of UVM’s “conversations” with “community members, campus partners and public safety officials,” and for any that would substantiate its “assessment” that its “safety and security concerns” prevented an in-person event.
The documents we received revealed some conversations among UVM administrators, and some conversations between UVM administrators and community members, but none with “public safety officials.” The university objected to some parts of our request, such as that for police incident reports, on grounds they are somehow “student records” — which isn’t true, if the records were prepared for law enforcement purposes. However, it did not object to producing records substantiating its safety and security concerns — yet none of what it produced revealed any kind of “assessment.” Instead, the records reflect only concerns that El-Kurd might “spout hate” that would “harm” the community, and that the university received messages asking it to cancel the event.
Of note, Bill Falls, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, wrote on Oct. 20 — one day before the event’s cancellation — that he was “deeply troubled [his] colleagues have chosen to exercise their academic freedom in this way and at this time when so many of [UVM’s] community are suffering.” He noted that he asked event organizers to consider postponing, saying that while he supports their right to invite controversial speakers, “exercise of this right must be done responsibly and in the full in [sic] light of its consequences.” Falls said he was stuck “between censorship (requiring the event to be cancelled) and risking harm to the community.”
In another email on Oct. 20, Falls expressed disappointment that event organizers found a moderator for the event, as not finding one would have allowed UVM to withdraw its sponsorship. Falls also expressed relief because the moderator would know “the policies” and “pull the plug” if El-Kurd began to spout “hate.” Notably, university policies allow for officials to pause an event if a disruption occurs, but do not reference specific reaction by administrators if “hate” is “spout[ed].”
Whatever objections community members may have had to El-Kurd’s views, the university purportedly canceled the event due to safety concerns. Yet the records do not reflect any specific concerns of that nature.
Moreover, the New York Times reported that a UVM lawyer acknowledged to faculty there were no threats to the venue or speaker. In other words, after publicly citing unspecified safety and security concerns, the university internally admitted no specific threats had been made to the venue or speaker. All of this suggests the publicly stated concerns were a pretext to shut down the event for expression-based reasons.
Indeed, some of the records we received suggest the university allowed anticipated campus reactions to El-Kurd to factor into its decision-making on some level. For example, on Oct. 23, after cancellation of the event’s in-person presentation, Provost Chief of Staff Kerry Castano said UVM had received 40 “form” messages asking the university to reconsider hosting the event, and only three in favor of hosting the event, suggesting that these messages had played into the university’s rationale.
We continue to call on UVM to publicly demonstrate it held substantiated security concerns about the event and attempted to address them — if it in fact did so. It is vital that campus community members understand potential risks to their safety, especially at a moment of heightened tensions and genuine instances of campus-related violence surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. It is also vital that community members know when their institutions lack the resources to provide campus security.
UVM also must not allow anticipated or perceived negative reactions among the campus community to influence decisions about expressive events. As we told the university, restricting “expressive activity in response to vague, unsubstantiated ‘safety and security’ concerns” violates its obligations to protect its students’ and faculty’s rights. And it can incentivize the use of threats to shut down future events. UVM continues to have some explaining to do, and we will stay on the university’s case until it does so.