Leftist students are often critiqued for demanding “safe spaces” from controversial speakers who come to campus, but at Lewis & Clark College we are witnessing something truly bizarre. Student organizers of an International Affairs symposium are providing a safe space for an anti-immigrant “hate group” and preventing the public from attending the session out of fears of “anger and hostility.”
The student organizers of the symposium invited Jessica Vaughan, policy director for the anti-immigrant “hate group” Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) to campus for a debate in a session titled “The Huddled Masses.” The symposium has a long history of setting-up debates between people who vigorously disagree with each other, and this has sparked useful and much needed discussion on a campus that too often appears as a liberal monolith. Debate is good and necessary, but apparently the students were not aware that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has designated CIS as a hate group and had not done their homework to research the group’s extremist nativist views.
The founder of CIS is John Tanton, the father of the modern nativist movement. Before creating CIS in 1985, Tanton founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a far-right xenophobic organization that also spews hate about immigrants.
The CIS connection to far-right racists is hardly casual or a fluke. The SPLC writes, “In recent years, CIS has routinely disseminated the works of white nationalist writers, including Jared Taylor of American Renaissance. Taylor has written that ‘[w]hen blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western civilization – any kind of civilization – disappears.’”
There have been many controversies over speakers on college campuses, from the anti-immigrant misogynist Milo Yiannopoulos to the neo-Eugenicist Charles Murray. In some of those cases, like at UC Berkeley and Middlebury, the protests against the speaker have turned aggressive with pushing and shoving and property damage.
At Lewis & Clark, where I teach in the History department and in Ethnic studies, nobody has publicly argued that Jessica Vaughan should be prohibited from speaking on campus simply because she represents white nationalist, anti-immigrant views and spreads misleading information using dubious data.
The usual arguments about free speech buzzed over the faculty listserve, with some, like myself, arguing that since the student organizers were unaware that the CIS was a hate group when they invited Ms. Vaughan, that they would be within their right to disinvite her.
The student organizers declined to rescind the invitation, stating in a recent email circulated to the faculty, “we found Ms. Vaughan to be representative of a stance that has become more common in recent years on the issue of our debate without being excessively inflammatory.”
If our students cannot discern a fake news nativist from a serious academic who opposes immigration, I fear for the future of the Republic.
The student organizers go on to say that “The narrative of groups like the CIS and its founders is an unfortunate reality of our current political and international climate, and it is, in our opinion, only through rigorous debate and headstrong questioning of those narratives that we can overcome them.” Fine. If you invite a hate group to campus and want to submit those ideas to “rigorous debate and headstrong questioning,” then open the event to the public.
Instead, the student organizers go on to say that given the controversy surrounding Vaughan’s visit, they will close this particular session to the public. All of the other sessions are open to the public; in my twenty years at the college I know of no other symposium that has ever locked out the public.
On Monday afternoon, the organizers wrote to me to say that they would allow the public to attend in a separate room where the debate would be simulcast. They did this, according to the email, “to preserve our academic environment as a place of discussion and debate.” I suppose the public can be trusted to watch on a screen, but not to engage in a dialogue.
College campuses should be places where controversial ideas are heard and debated, perhaps even those of hate groups like the CIS. However, it is also the right of the public to engage in those debates, not just watch on a screen from another room. At Lewis & Clark, the International Affairs symposium student organizers have chosen to lock out the public, a decision that is a shameful blot of the reputation of a symposium that has always heralded its willingness to engage in controversial discussions.
The Portland public, however, will not sit idly by while a white nationalist nativist group spreads its hate. A local activist group, Portland’s Resistance, has vowed to take advantage of their rights to free expression and protest the forum to which they as the public have been excluded.
I hope that the peaceful protest and the forum happen without any violence and that all parties are heard respectfully. I have encouraged my students and colleagues to come to the session armed with data and arguments not Molotov cocktails.