Senior and McNair Scholar Lionel Clay is quoted as saying “We shut this down to represent how they’re trying to shut us down. Trying to silence our voices. How they’re trying to mute us. How they don’t want us to be there.” However, there was also this quote from incoming freshman Brennan Wills: “I appreciate that Marquette acknowledges the First Amendment rights of free speech. I don’t enjoy how in the end the event was still canceled, and I don’t get to experience this.”
Willis has a point. The protesters stopped these students and families from an important part of their college experience, a convocation that the protesters were allowed when they were incoming students. In my view, it was a reckless and callous act. There is no question that stopping the convocation received the greatest press attention but it also hurt fellow students and their families. Rather than conducting a sit-in at an administrative building or protesting other events, the students selected an event that would deny other students one of the most memorable moments of their education. However, it was not the protest itself but the storming of the stage that went too far in my view.
The question is how the university should respond. It is does not appear that any discipline will be meted out for blocking the event.
This presents a different situation from prior cancellation campaigns where protesters keep speakers from being heard due to their holding dissenting views.
Blocking others from speaking is not the exercise of free speech. It is the very antithesis of free speech. Nevertheless, faculty have supported such claims. CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,” Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned).
Here the effort was to protest university policies and the treatment of African American students. While the protesters were reportedly wrong on the issue of the OEI office, they were seeking to draw attention to what they viewed as racist policies or practices by the university. For many decades, students have engaged in such sit downs, strikes, and protests. There is a difference from trying to prevent others from speaking on campus.
The problem, however, remains the specific event and method that they chose. I believe that preventing other students from experiencing this rite of passage was wrong and worthy of discipline. I would not support expulsion, but I believe that the students should be sanctioned in the form of an official reprimand or even a suspension. That should be accompanied with a warning that any similar disruption of a convocation or graduation in the future would result in expulsion. That does not mean that they cannot protest such events. The students have a free speech right to protest at the convocation. They do not have the right to storm the stage and disrupt the convocation. This protest harmed other students. The same is true for preventing classes from being held by storming a classroom, as was the situation previously discussed at Northwestern.
I have also advocated in the past that students who disrupt speakers face expulsion after being given a prior warning and official reprimand. There is a difference between protesting outside of events or classes and storming rooms or stages to prevent others from hearing teachers or speakers. It is the difference between being heard and preventing others from being heard.
In this case, the protesters used an important ceremony for other students as a vehicle for their own speech. In doing so, they harmed other students and the school by blocking the convocation rather than simply engaging in a nearby protest. As institutions of higher learning, we have to draw a bright line in the protection of a diversity of viewpoints as well as the protections of the spaces for learning. Protests are an important part of that culture but so is the recognition of basic respect and tolerance for other students and faculty in their own activities and expression.