AUDIO: “There is a hunger on behalf of students to learn about” free speech “and they’ve never had anybody explain it to them”
Revisiting Vassar College’s campus meltdown over my lecture on Hate Speech and Free Speech, on The Daily Signal Podcast
A little over two years ago, on October 25, 2017, I gave a speech about free speech and hate speech at Vassar College.
It was, as I have described many times, an ‘out-of-body’ experience because of false claims spread about me and my appearance by students, including student government. From my post, Safe Spaces and Safety Teams at Vassar College for My Lecture on Free Speech:
The lecture originally was advertised as “‘Hate Speech’ is Still Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville.” The name was changed because the sponsoring student group filed for funding under another title, so we were asked to use that approved title.
Regardless of title, the planned discussion of hate speech sent a portion of the campus into a vicious smear campaign against me.
Hundreds of students, faculty and staff on campus were whipped into a frenzy by false and malicious accusations, originating it appears with a student group Healing 2 Action, but also spread by the Vassar Student Association. In addition to maligning me personally, accusations were spread falsely claiming White Nationalist supporters might come to campus to target students of color, LGBT students, Jewish students and others.
VSA originally was one of the co-sponsors, and agreed to pay part of my fee (which I still expect it to pay). But during the hysteria, the Executive Board of the VSA unsuccessfully requested that Vassar’s President, Elizabeth Bradley, cancel my appearance and find a way to breach its contract, based on the accusations….
The evening actually turned out well, with almost 300 students showing up (many if not most to protest me), and listening to my explanation of the importance of the 1st Amendment:
Despite all the agitation and hysteria, the event went off without complication. Vassar provided excellent security both for me personally and for the event venue.
The turnout was excellent, approximately 200 students in the room (full capacity) plus overflow in the hallway. The students who attended, even the ones who showed up wearing black in protest, listened intently. I think they were expecting someone and something very different based on the campus hysteria. I addressed the hysteria in my lecture.
After my lecture, we had over an hour-long question and answer session, and almost all the students stayed to the very end. The questions were thoughtful and in many instances quite challenging, the students respectful, and I think we all learned something.
You can view the video of the lecture here, and the Q&A here. You also should read this brilliant Letter to the Editor of the Vassar student newspaper, Alum to Vassar College President: “You owe Professor Jacobson a public apology”:
“To the eternal shame of Vassar, it appears that not a single member of the Vassar faculty or administration publicly supported Professor Jacobson or his free speech message. “
My Vassar experience has come up recently in some of my appearances, including a recent appearance on The Daily Signal’s (Heritage Foundation) podcast, summarized here, Conservative Law Professor Challenges Campus Left on Free Speech (and Wins Them Over):
Bill Jacobson, founder and publisher of Legal Insurrection as well as a clinical professor of law and director of the Securities Law Clinic at Cornell Law School, shares his insights on Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College. Jacobson also talks about how he turned a hostile greeting at Vassar College into an incredible teaching experience, and discusses his views on social media censorship. Read the lightly edited transcript below or listen to the podcast.
The podcast audio is embedded below, and also is at the link.
As to Vassar, here’s the excerpt from the transcript.
[Rob] Bluey: That’s great, that’s great. Now, you had another experience on a college campus, Vassar, where you were going to deliver a lecture on hate speech and were met with, again, a reaction that you might typically find at a liberal or, shall we say, leftist environment, on a college campus.
So tell our listeners about what that experience was like and how you turned it, perhaps, to your advantage in the end.
Jacobson: I was invited to speak at Vassar College on the issue of hate speech and free speech. I’d spoken there several years earlier against the academic boycott of Israel, and I was invited at that time by the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union, which was like nine students on the campus. So a couple of them were either still there, and so I was invited to speak about free speech.
And Charlottesville had just happened, and I said, “My concern is that people are going to try to use that to clamp down on free speech on campuses.” People who want to clamp down on free speech anyway would do that. And so they schedule it and I said, “Why don’t we title it, ‘Hate Speech’ Is Still Free Speech Even After Charlottesville”? I felt that would get attention and would really focus the issue.
When they put up the posters, whatever it was, two weeks before, three weeks before, the campus completely melted down. When I say completely melted down, they had two campus-wide meetings attended, according to reports, by hundreds of students, faculty, and administrators about what to do with me coming to campus to talk about this.
The rumors were spread … not just rumors, emails, including from the student government that I was a white supremacist coming to campus with my white nationalist followers to target minorities.
They falsely accused me not only of that, but of spreading advertising for the thing on white nationalist websites and a whole bunch of other things, and the campus went into meltdown.
They organized safe spaces for my visit. They organized safety teams to guide people to safe spaces with glow sticks if they couldn’t find the safe spaces. In the library, which was the main safe space, they had coloring books for students—college students. It was the craziest thing.
The student government executive board sent a letter to the president demanding they terminate my appearance. And I’m sure you have many lawyers who listen. They had a great line in there which I loved. They said, “We demand that you breach the contract for him to appear.”
… I think she could have done better, but she didn’t. And so I appeared and they had me escorted onto campus. I had to meet at campus security off campus, very tight security, bags checked, all that sort of things. They had protesters show up dressed like Antifa in protest.
So we were in what I think is the largest classroom there, lecture hall. If it’s not the largest, it’s one of them. I think capacity was over 200. It was over capacity, students overflowing into the hallways. So we probably had close to 300 students, and as soon as I started speaking, they realized, I think, they’d been had, that I was not who I was portrayed to be.
I spent 45 minutes with a basic lecture about the First Amendment, the history, why it’s important, why historically it’s actually protected left-wing speech, that the anti-war movement and the other movements could not have developed if not for the protections.
Bluey: You’re absolutely right, yes.
Jacobson: And then I went through the rest of the Bill of Rights and I went through each of the rights of the Bill of Rights and I said, “While they may not technically apply here on campus, I’m sure you don’t want the college administration to take your stuff without some process by which you could contest it, some due process.” I said, “You don’t want to give up that right here.”
And I said, “Certainly you don’t want the dean … ” And the dean was sitting there. He’d been at my speech four years earlier. And I said, “I’m sure you don’t want the dean to come and just search you because he feels like it without some probable cause to believe that you’ve done something wrong.”
And I went through a bunch of other things. I went through my favorite one, which is the Third Amendment, which nobody seems to know, which is you cannot quarter a soldier in a private home in time of peace. I said, “You don’t want the administration quartering security to sleep in your room.”
I went through all of these and I said, “Why is it you want all of these rights in the Bill of Rights on this campus, even if it technically doesn’t apply, but the one right you’re so willing and eager to give up are your free speech rights?” I said, “Why is that?” I said, “Maybe it’s because on this campus, you have power and therefore your speech is not going to be stifled. But go outside those gates and guess what? That’s Trump country, and you wonder why the nation—or at least half the nation—voted that way even though you don’t know anybody who voted for him.”
I said, “So if you give up First Amendment rights on this campus and you are willing to suppress speech on this campus, you have no right to complain if somebody does it to you beyond the fence and beyond the gate.”
It was a great 45 minutes, no interruptions, although they came ready for a fight.
Bluey: I bet, yes.
Jacobson: No interruptions, and then we had question-and-answer. [An] hour and 15 minutes, the students lined up to ask [questions], including someone dressed in black. There were mostly good questions. I mean, I think questions that reflected that they’d never really had to think about these things before, but they were, let’s say, good-faith questions.
And it would have gone on longer, because when I do a lecture, for the most part, I’ll just stay until the last question. I don’t have a [limitation,] unless the organizer has a limitation. And finally the security said, “It’s getting late. It’s 10 o’clock at night. We got to go home,” and so they called off.
But almost every student got to ask a question and it was one of the best nights I’ve ever had on a campus.
One thing it taught me is that there is a hunger out there on behalf of students to learn about what you would think are basic civic lessons that they’ve never had. And they’ve never had anybody explain it to them, and why it’s important, and why even allowing speech you consider offensive is really important.
A student asked a question along those lines, like, “Why should we allow something … ” I said, “Well, what if I consider your speech offensive?” I said, “Do I get to stop you from speaking?” I said, “You have power here, but you don’t have power. Don’t turn free speech into who has the power, because you’re going to ultimately lose that argument. Because in this society, liberal students on college campuses don’t have power.”
So I got some emails afterward from students who thanked me for coming, were ashamed of how I was treated. I know the alumni were really furious, and some wrote letters to the newspaper and to the president about how I was treated and so on.
But it was really informative to me, because one, it was one of those [out-of-body] experiences that I’ve seen others go through where they are kind of demonizing this person. And it’s only after a while you realize that’s you they’re talking about, but the person they’re talking about bears no resemblance to you. And so I understand what that is for people.
The other thing is, I think that there are opportunities, I think, for conservatives, by providing alternative educational mechanisms to students, as I know [The Heritage Foundation] does and other organizations do, because there are students who want to hear it. There is an audience—
Bluey: They really do, yes.
Jacobson: There is an audience for that message.
Bluey: They really do. I wholeheartedly agree.
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