The tension between the open expression of ideas that contribute to a just society and the preservation of human dignity by limiting certain forms of hate speech continues to sustain debates at Vassar College and on the broader national political stage. Drawing attention to this tension, the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union (VCLU) invited Clinical Professor of Law William Jacobson of Cornell University to speak on Oct. 25 about the First Amendment as it applies to political protests and discourse on college campuses. The lecture quickly became controversial and sparked dissenting protests led by student organization Healing to Action (H2A) and prompted President of the College Elizabeth Bradley to organize support staff and plans for student safety.
The lead-up to the event was complicated by several misunderstandings between student groups about Jacobson’s lecture. In its application to the Vassar Student Association (VSA) speakers fund, the VCLU titled the lecture “An Examination of Hate Speech and Free Speech on College Campuses.” However, the VCLU later publicized the lecture under the unapproved title “Hate Speech is Still Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville,” sparking fierce opposition from many students. Jacobson delivered the lecture under the original title, and the VCLU issued a formal apology to the VSA and H2A for changing the name. Furthermore, the content and following of Jacobson’s conservative blog, Legal Insurrection, led some students to raise concerns that he might be a white supremacist, though these claims have not been proven.
The VSA Senate approved funding for the event under the title originally submitted by the VCLU, who hoped to give visibility to a point of view that is often overlooked on left-leaning liberal arts campuses. VCLU President Pietro Geraci ’18 expanded, “Many at Vassar believe that hate speech isn’t free speech, and that offensive and hateful language should be banned. I wanted to bring a different viewpoint on the topic to Vassar, so Vassar students and other attendees could gain a better understanding of free speech and the First Amendment.”
However, many feel that Vassar has more serious issues with diversity than a lack of political diversity. VSA Chair of Equity and Inclusion Tamar Ballard ’19 explained, “I think, a lot of times, diversity—a concept we, as an institution, need to hone in more on what we mean by it—and inclusion are concepts that look good on paper, but are not always fully realized in practice. Our college’s mission statement points to the importance of these two concepts, but oftentimes, we forget what it means to not only bring to campus students of color, trans and non-binary students, students with differing abilities, low-income or first-generation students, etc., but also make sure they’re safe, happy and thriving here.” In recognition of these needs, a major focus of the VSA this year is supporting the growth of individuals from backgrounds that are often marginalized in the wider social context.
Reflecting on the misunderstanding between the VCLU and the VSA regarding the name of the event, VSA Vice President for Finance Robyn Lin ’18 explained, “The VCLU has previously gotten in trouble with the VSA regarding malpractice of finances. This year we were assured that the old leadership [responsible for such malpractice] had graduated, and Finance Committee did our best to view their application for funding with an open mind. The initial allocation meeting went fine. However, when it became clear that the name of the event and the description had been changed to the point that it sounded like a different event, Finance was not made aware nor was the VCLU responsive in changing the name and description back to the agreed upon one. President Bradley was able to become involved when she reached out to student leaders from both H2A and the VSA.”
In disagreement with a letter the VSA wrote to President Bradley presenting claims that William Jacobson endorses alt-right ideology, Geraci stated, “I have never felt more betrayed by the VSA … I believe that through these actions, the VSA Executive Board failed to act in the best interest of the student body. The protests and other activities planned for during the lecture are in my opinion ridiculous; nobody was targeted, nobody was threatened and nobody was ever in any danger.”
At the lecture, the room was crowded with a few hundred attendees, some of whom wore all black in protest. In his talk, Jacobson made a case for preserving First Amendment protections for the free expression of ideas and statements, even those that may make individuals who identify with marginalized groups uncomfortable.
He suggested, “By protecting someone’s right to free speech, you are not endorsing their ideas, necessarily … Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism. A lot of people mistake criticism as an attempt to silence somebody.”
For Jacobson, a strong civil society depends on the agreement of all citizens to hear and tolerate potentially offensive speech and ideas, including statements that target marginalized individuals. This tacit agreement, he contended, also maintains a balanced discussion by allowing for the criticism and protest of potentially offensive speech and ideas. As Jacobson summarized, “We all know what Charlottesville was: Watching those people with the torches was nauseating, it was abominable, but they were on a public campus and under the Constitution they had the right to be abominable and nauseating.”
In the question-and-answer session following the lecture, students argued that an interpretation of the First Amendment excluding speech that violates basic human dignity from such protections would be more appropriate given ongoing controversies over race relations in the United States. Pinpointing Jacobson’s failure to address the abuse of privilege and power in First Amendment protections, a member of the audience asked, “How do you remedy that with the fact that most of the people committing the hate speech are coming from one demographic versus everybody else?”
The topic of the lecture hit uncomfortably close to home for many, as Vassar has experienced several incidents of hate speech in the last year. A Class of 2020 student who attended the event commented anonymously, “People at Vassar are kind of upset about the state of the world right now. We’re very upset by all of the bias reports going on at Vassar.”
Many students feel that the kinds of speech that Jacobson argues should be protected under the First Amendment often have implications of violence and inflict real pain on individuals of marginalized identities. Dea Oviedo ’20 reflected, “I think the administration should have done more to ensure the protection of students and not just expect them to protect themselves.”
In the days following Jacobson’s lecture, the President’s Office convened with the VSA, Safety and Security and the Office of Communications to establish a student support plan in response to the concerns raised by Jacobson’s lecture.
Associate Dean of the College for Campus Life and Diversity Ed Pittman ’82 commented via email, “I think that the Jacobson lecture reflects how ideas and expression have an impact on communities—whether that speech is protected by the First Amendment or not. I believe that students and others were responding to the possibility that some ideas have a way of attracting undesirable elements that often are antithetical to values of inclusion and equity.”
He continued, “Diversity, equity and inclusion are core principles at Vassar, principles that are central to the mission [of the College]. Whether it’s academics, campus life or the work environment, I think that we strive to be inclusive. Acknowledging diversity also means that there will be diverse perspectives, which is both an opportunity and a challenge.”
In a campus-wide email sent on Oct. 24, President Bradley wrote, “Students have expressed fear for their safety and well-being, particularly in the national context of hate speech and divisive language. Many find this time extremely stressful and unsettled … I want to affirm my commitment to maintaining the safety of our students, faculty, staff, and administration. I hope we can be a campus where we think about how our words will affect others and where principles of equity and inclusion underpin our actions” (President Elizabeth Bradley, “Message from the President,” 10.24.2017).
In an effort to counteract this fear, during the lecture, students held a community gathering in the library in an effort to provide a calmer environment for those who felt uncomfortable or unsafe, as well as to reclaim the space of the library after the hate speech incidents that occurred there last spring.
Back at the lecture, Jacobson supported his viewpoint by considering historical developments in which the First Amendment had a positive impact, as well as times when the lack of such protections contributed to disaster. He elaborated, “I don’t think as a society offensive ideas should be criminalized because that empowers the dominant political group to enforce its way through the criminal laws.”
Examples include Recep Erdogan’s presidency in Turkey that ordered the arrest of academics, reporters and political dissidents in December 2013 for opposition speech about corruption in the Turkish government, as well as Section 13(1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act that, according to the National Post, admitted hearsay evidence, allowed plaintiffs to choose not to face defendants in court and provided government funds to plaintiffs but not defendants in the prosecution of hate speech crimes until its repeal in June 2013 by the Canadian Senate.
Jacobson continued, “When you empower the people in power to silence their political enemies under criminal laws under the guise that the views you are expressing are hateful, then I think you are running the risk of a dictatorial situation, and that’s not the country I personally want to live in.”
In terms of positive impact, Jacobson described, “The history of the First Amendment is largely the protection—at least in the United States, at least in the last 75 years—of social justice movements that were unpopular with people in power, and probably still are unpopular with the people in power … The history of the First Amendment is the history of protecting communists, civil rights movements, the anti-war movement and other political activities that were deemed at the time hateful by those in power.”
Though the event led to a great deal of strife, Ballard concluded, “I believe that Vassar students are strong. Students, especially students of color, have been through—and will continue to go through—a lot being here, but we’re strong. We’re mighty. But with that, we need to take the time to heal. We’re so used to moving past situations like this very quickly—mostly for the sake of our academic endeavors—that we don’t have or take the time we need to work through what’s at the heart of these situations. In a broader campus sense, education is key for me. Sitting down, listening and being a part of conversations and doing the work needed to change a campus environment that has caused many people a lot of hurt over the past few weeks of this semester is crucial. We all deserve to be comfortable and feel safe here, and we all have the responsibility to take care of ourselves and each other.”