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Was What Happened at Columbia ‘Civil Disobedience’?

Yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed featured an article by Elizabeth Redden entitled “The Complications of Free Speech.” The story focuses on varying student and outside groups’ reactions to this month’s struggles over free speech on that campus, most prominently including the Minutemen incident where students stormed the stage to protest a controversial speaker, leading to a violent melee. The article reports that while outside of Columbia condemnation of the protestors’ actions is widespread, opinions within Columbia have proven to be more ambiguous.

It’s both interesting and illuminating to read the different views of the incident from different groups. However an important point that could easily be overlooked is a point FIRE President Greg Lukianoff and others made in this article about lawful protesting versus “civil disobedience.” Greg said:

It seems like they sincerely believed that they had every right to jump up onto the stage to actually disrupt the speech, that it was part of their free speech rights. That’s absolutely wrong; you don’t have a free speech right to disrupt an event.

The article goes on: “Storming the stage could be seen as an incident of civil disobedience, Lukainoff said, but only if the protestors did so with the intent that they would accept the designated punishment.”

This is crucial. All too often, we see the term “civil disobedience” used to identify incidents like that of the Columbia Minutemen speech. Here’s a tip: if you’re in a brawl, it’s not civil disobedience. There are two important components of civil disobedience: first, your disobedience has to be nonviolent, if not precisely “civil.” Shouting loud slogans, braving fire hoses, etc., are not particularly civil, but they are nonviolent. Thoreau refused to pay his taxes as part of civil disobedience in order to protest slavery and war. But once you start a fight or a riot, you are out of the realm of civil disobedience.

Second, you have to be prepared to endure the punishment prescribed by the law—simply because you are engaged in “civil disobedience” does not make unlawful behavior any more lawful. If storming a stage is your act of civil disobedience (assuming you are peacefully doing so), you must be prepared to be treated like anyone else who storms a stage and shouts down a speaker. It makes no difference if you are shouting down a “racist” speaker like Minutemen founder Jim Gilchrist or protesting an “offensive” play like that written by Chris Lee at Washington State University—storming a stage and stopping a performance is disruptive, and the police or security are well within their rights to stop you.

Indeed, enduring the punishment for civil disobedience is an integral part of the protest. Part of the reason for the power of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is that it is written from a jail cell that he was put in for practicing civil disobedience. A hypothetical “Letter from Birmingham Country Club,” even if written in identical words, would obviously have less effect. Neither King, nor Thoreau, nor Gandhi would recognize what happened at Columbia as a valid exercise of “civil disobedience.”

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