Minutemen Founder's Speech Ignites Yearlong Free Speech Debate

It was over almost as soon as it began.

Seconds after a small group of students rushed the stage where Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist was speaking and unfurled a banner stating that "no one is illegal," a fight broke out on the stage. Video footage showed Minutemen supporters kicking and hitting Columbians.

Only a few minutes later, Columbia's security had regained control of the room, and a relative quiet had returned to Roone Arledge Auditorium. But those few minutes have affected the University more than any others this year. They caused University President Lee Bollinger, Barnard President Judith Shapiro, and other top administrators to reconsider security procedures, the role of free speech on a private campus, and whether discipline procedures that were written 40 years ago in the months after the riots of 1968 are still fair and practical.

Student leaders also grappled with how to create a campus that welcomes controversial ideas, while at the same time building a community in which members feel safe. In the days after the debacle, student groups struggled to craft statements that expressed both the importance of free speech and the right to student protest.

In the immediate aftermath of the protest, many student groups struggled to distance themselves from the protesters. "The Student Body of Columbia University has a right to invite speakers with varied points of view to campus, and it is unacceptable within our community to take away someone else's right to express their opinions and viewpoints," the University Senate's Student Affairs Caucus, composed of elected representatives from every school at Columbia, wrote in a resolution passed on October 8.

Over the next few months, the University began to make policy changes: new security measures put into place immediately after the event decreased the number of people from outside the University who could attend certain events and established physical barriers between the stage and audience. Oversight of the Student Governing Board changed hands, causing many students to complain that the governing board was losing its student control. Meanwhile, the process by which disciplinary decisions against the student protesters were decided yielded results that many called unfair, causing some to begin lobbying the University to consider revamping its disciplinary process.

The Right to Speak?

Immediately after the Minutemen protest, the University created a new set of rules that gave the it more oversight in terms of planning and developing a security plan for bringing speakers to campus.

In the week that followed, the University tightened security significantly-when speaker Walid Shoebat came to the University to speak with the College Republicans a week later, he spoke behind two plastic fences. Additionally, while the Republicans initially invited 115 outside guests to the event, only 20 were allowed to attend.

"This is a police state," Bari Weiss, CC '07 and a former Spectator columnist, said at the time.

Bollinger defended the rights of students to bring anyone to campus. "Students have the right as organizations to invite whomever they want to campus," he told Spectator in October.

But in December, Bollinger announced in a formal statement that the University would review all invitations to speakers or groups who were invited to speak on campus and would require an agreement between the University and the student groups about how the events would be staged.

The Big Move

In early November, the Student Governing Board, which funds political and activist groups, including the College Republicans, was moved from the Office of the University Chaplain's jurisdiction into the Student Affairs office.

At the time, the University said the move had nothing to do with the Minutemen incident-rather, they said the shift would offer the students in the SGB more access to resources and advisers. But in a December statement, Bollinger said that the reorganization of SGB under the Student Affairs umbrella would allow more oversight by the University to ensure that all groups had the opportunity to bring controversial speakers to campus.

Top SGB leaders have criticized the University's lack of transparency, though they have said that the additional resources will be useful.

Sakib Khan, SEAS '07 and chair of SGB, said that administrators have gone "beyond border-line dishonesty."

The Charges

The release of disciplinary decisions for the students who stormed the stage has prompted many students to push for a review of the University's disciplinary system regarding protests, which hasn't been changed since the 1960s.

The University announced in December that students involved in rushing the stage would be tried under the Rules of University Conduct, University-wide rules that apply strictly to students who participate in protests on University property. All of the students who were charged faced simple rules violations, the lighter of two levels of punishment under current rules. Simple violations are dealt with through Dean's Discipline, a process by which a small group of deans hear a student's case and make a decision without public input.

When results of the trials were released, eight students had been charged with simple violations. At the end of the disciplinary process, three students, all of whom are Latino, received censures, which is a harsher punishment than the disciplinary warnings received by the other five. As a result, some students have accused the University of unfairness and racism.

"We need to have pretty drastic changes if we're going to have anything like justice," David Judd, SEAS '08 and one of those who was given a disciplinary warning, said.

In April, the Student Governing Board called on the University to review its current procedures to evaluate if there is a better and more transparent process by which students can be tried.

"The system wasn't transparent," said incoming SGB president Jonathan Seigel, CC '08. "You can't have a secret justice system. What's the point of having a disciplinary process at all if no one believes in it?"

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