Students Protest Columbia’s Free Expression Policies

Columbia using 'guise of freedom of speech and robust discussion' to protect hate

Butler Library at Columbia University

Butler Library at Columbia University / Wikimedia Commons

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Columbia University student protesters inveighed against the school's policies protecting freedom of expression in a new video produced by the student newspaper on the campus community's views on free speech.

Aryn Davis, who led protests earlier this year against the College Republican's events featuring controversial right-wing nationalists and conspiracy theorists Tommy Robinson and Mike Cernovich, told the Columbia Spectator, "Columbia is home to so many different groups, that to even think of bringing in someone who has ever insulted a group, or said that everyone in this group should be subjected to this—that shouldn't be allowed on campus because that's ultimately going to affect someone who is on campus."

Davis maintained that as a private institution, Columbia is not bound by the First Amendment.

However, the university does have its own detailed policy promising free expression to its community. In that policy, the university commits itself to spurning censorship, refusing to consider content as a basis for rejecting a speaker, and ensuring demonstrators do not impose on others' rights to engage in expression.

Davis defended herself against accusations that she disrupted Robinson's talk via Skype in October, behavior for which she was investigated in a now-abandoned disciplinary action by administrators.

"In order to shout someone down, like they have to be saying something," she said, adding that Robinson "didn't have a speech prepared, it was just doing a Q&A."

Robinson has said he did have prepared remarks, but scrapped them after 15 minutes of protest.

The Spectator footage features unnamed students videoed during the Cernovich protest, who explain why they opposed the event.

"Columbia likes to push this facade that it is about diversity, accepting all people, about allowing people to protest, and you're a black or brown student and you get on this campus and Columbia is tolerating this speech," said one woman.

Another said Columbia was using the "guise of freedom of speech and robust discussion" to protect hate.

"Free speech is inciting violence against those vulnerable bodies," said a third student. "And it's my responsibility to shut it down."

Aristotle Boosalis, president of the College Republicans, told the Spectator that he approved of protest, "but there has to be rules."

He welcomed students to come "debate bad ideas."

"Shedding light on someone's fallacies is incredibly insightful," said Boosalis. "It shows these people don't have arguments."

Justin Cheng, the student reporter who conducted the interviews, told the Washington Free Beacon that the conservatives and protesters have all engaged in "scapegoating, straw-manning, ad hominem attacks, and playing victim."

However, he believes that both sides have a strong argument to present on their diverging views of free speech.

Cheng said he hoped his video could encourage a balanced conversation about expression and hate speech that moves beyond the heated confrontations that have erupted throughout the semester.

Rachel Frommer

Rachel Frommer   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Rachel Frommer is a staff writer with the Washington Free Beacon reporting on campus issues, including anti-free speech and anti-Israel activity. Prior to the Free Beacon, she was the senior campus correspondent at The Algemeiner. Her work has been picked up by Fox News, Newsweek, and the New York Post. She graduated from Touro College in 2016 with a BA in English literature. Her Twitter handle is @Rachel_Frommer, and her email address is frommer@freebeacon.com.

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