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“Stop debating”: CUNY Law students disrupt speaker and his critic

In a stunning display of closed-mindedness and anti-intellectualism, a group of protesters at the City University of New York School of Law not only disrupted a speech by law professor and author Josh Blackman, but also disrupted a fellow student who was there, in his own words, to ask Blackman “some really hard questions.”

Blackman was invited to speak by CUNY Law’s chapter of the Federalist Society on March 29. Federalist Society speeches and debates take place regularly at law schools around the country; I have participated in a number of them myself. Blackman suggested the topic of free speech on campus — a talk he “had given before, without any problems, at Southern Illinois, Texas Southern University, the University of Massachusetts, Barry University, the University of Oregon, and my home institution, the South Texas College of Law Houston.”

At CUNY Law, however, there were problems. Blackman provides a complete account of the incident, including video, on his blog, and what happened that night should be deeply disheartening to anyone who believes in the right to free speech and the importance of intellectual engagement and debate.

Several days before the event, the president of CUNY Law’s Federalist Society chapter informed Blackman that students were angry about his planned appearance on campus, explaining that:

These students saw first, that this is a Federalist Society event; and second, they saw a few of your writings (specifically a National Review article praising Sessions for rescinding DACA and ACA), and instantly assume you’re racist; and third, our event being titled about free speech is reminiscent of events that claim free speech just to invite people like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter.

After Blackman arrived on campus, he was met outside the lecture room by a group of student protesters holding signs. Tellingly, the protest was primarily aimed not at Blackman himself, but actually at CUNY Law for allowing him to speak. Students held signs stating things like “Shame on CUNY: Don’t Give Oppressors a Platform” and “CUNY Law, You Failed Your Students.” Cries of “I don’t understand how CUNY allows this” and “We are just here to protest CUNY Law, because they are not acting right” could be heard over Blackman’s attempts to speak.

The students’ right to protest, even to protest Blackman’s right to speak, is not in dispute. But as soon as Blackman arrived inside the lecture room, the disruptions began. A full video of his appearance, including the early disruptions, can be found on YouTube:

As you can see from the video, Blackman abandoned his planned remarks about free speech and instead tried to engage the protesters on their substantive criticisms of him, such as his writings about DACA. He explained that he actually supports the DREAM Act and would have voted for it in Congress, but that he believes the DACA policy — which President Obama adopted after Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act — was “not consistent with the rule of law.” He cited this (over jeers and interruptions) as an example of how one can “support something as a matter of policy, but find that the law does not permit it. And then the answer is to change the law.”

What happened that night should be deeply disheartening to anyone who believes in the right to free speech and the importance of intellectual engagement and debate.

That sounds like the premise of an interesting debate, but the protesters would have none of it. Instead, they shouted out that he was “gaslighting” them and “lying to [him]self” — apparently, they already understood his views better than he did, so there was no need for any intellectual engagement. When an administrator intervened to remind the group that they had to let Blackman speak, they asked her, “Why are you bringing racists into your school” and (before Blackman had spoken more than a few prefatory words) “Why are you not providing support for students affected by this hate speech?”

Ultimately, when it became obvious that Blackman was not going to stop trying to speak, the protesters started to file out. But that’s when perhaps the most remarkable encounter occurred. As Blackman describes it (and you can see it for yourself on the video):

Then, the dialogue shifted to the back of the room. The African-American student I mentioned earlier said, “I don’t support this guy” but “I want to hear him speak.” The protestors tried to shame him for attending. He continued, “I want to ask him a very hard question. And we should all try to ask him very hard questions. Like about the notion of legal objectivity.” Sensing the event had taken a different direction, I said, “Let’s talk about that.” The protestors then heckled and shouted over the student asking the question.

Here was a student who had specifically come to hear a viewpoint he disagreed with. He wanted to ask tough questions, questions that might lead Blackman to consider a perspective he hadn’t heard before and perhaps even change his views. You would think that protesters who found Blackman’s views offensive would be all for that. But instead, they tried to prevent the questioner from speaking too. They spoke over him and even yelled at him to “stop debating” with Blackman. For me, this was the most revealing moment of the whole encounter, laying bare the fact that the protesters’ goal was not to actually effect a change in anyone’s views, but rather simply to prevent those views from being heard.

According to Blackman:

At that point, the protestors left the room, and I learned they marched to the Dean’s Office to complain. After they left, I took questions from the students for over an hour. I did not present any of my prepared remarks, but it didn’t matter. I spoke on originalism, textualism, the separation of powers, about DACA, affirmative action, criminal procedure, and wide range of other topics. The conversation was civil and professional. I was very proud of the students who stayed till the end. (Well, there was one Trump supporter in the room who called me a “Cuck” for not being MAGA enough—I can’t win.)

So ultimately, the story has a happy ending for Blackman and the students who stayed. But for me, the story has a sad ending for the protesters, who missed an important opportunity to really engage with someone who may disagree with them but, as is wholly apparent from the video, wants to hear what they have to say.

And the deeper question we really need to ask is what is happening at CUNY and elsewhere that students genuinely believe it is preferable to avoid and suppress opposing views rather than hear and engage with them?

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