Having organized faculty unions in another life, and having been politically active on several college campuses, I'm uniquely struck by how egregiously ignorant the general populace is to the extraordinary conservatism that permeates academia. Historians and writers such as Rick Perlstein have written a great deal about the peculiar phenomenon of the general populace--many who rely on our services as members of educational institutions--thinking, quite wrongly, that universities and colleges are bastions of liberalism. If that were so, I would not be fearing for my job at the moment simply because I initiated (in my estimation) a much needed dialog around free speech on college campuses, especially when it comes to demonstrations that have the facets I described in the letter--aesthetic and political valences, performative works a la Situationist and post-Situationist political theater, etc. How many times have artist come to campus to perform works constructed in the very spirit of the impugned and "investigated"? Rodrigo Toscano, Kaia Sand, Jules Bokyoff, Linh Dinh, Mark Wallace, Tung Hui-Hi, Susan Schulz and future (I hope?) writers - all these artists are welcomed with open arms by the public face of the College due to the fact that, in part, as I see it, they are recognized (and rightly so) figures in their field (I'm speaking here only of poetry and poetics, though the visual and performing arts, not to mention sociology, philosophy, etc., can be exemplified here, too, at length). When experimental political art is taken outside the sterilized frame of the "invited guest inside a classroom speaking about artistic political interventions/actions performed elsewhere (cue slideshow) about injustices in the world" and put into the less definitionally stable frame of "college student outside a classroom performing an artistic political intervention/action in our own backyard on issues related to our own collective and contiguous politics" - this makes us uncomfortable, makes some feel "unsafe," forces some to question our own "values" and thus sets into motion various attempted and realized sanctions such as "investigations" of "crimes" committed by "violent" and "out of control" "criminals." Am I one of so few faculty (comparative to the size of the faculty body at my particular place of work) to sense that there is scary, though not atypical (as Lawrence Masqueda emphasizes below) double standard? I mentioned the word "police state," not to stoke the fire, nor to suggest that The Evergreen State College is a police state, but that actions recently taken by Police Services are citations of what one encounters in a police state as a matter of definition, and that the slippery slope argument is one I cannot believe we are in need of bringing up.
In any case, this particular post on my blog will remain as a log of various events concerning this particular set of incidents, as well as a clearinghouse for those interested in commenting. For further discussion on these particular issues, feel free to go to the archives and come back to this post from time to time for updated thoughts, alerts, and items of interest for the teachers, students, and other humans who happen to work in or for academic institutions. For now, I've included below some of the responses to my initial open letter. Most are very heartening. Some, however, such as those by officers Sorger and Meyers are, to me, perfect examples of why I not only felt compelled to write, but did send, the open letter in the first place. Good thing to know that the College administration is hard at work right now figuring out a "policy" for what counts as "acceptable" political art practices such that future "incidents" do not occur. We'll certainly have to be vigilant in keeping on eye on the institution's progress in this regard.
both my kids (14 and 8) have been raised here, have both been part of the Children's Center, and both they (and I) feel safe in Red Square.
bring your kids, anytime! they'll be fine.
McLain, John wrote:
> I know only one thing for certain emerging from all of this: Red Square
> does not feel like a safe place to bring my children. And I worry about
> the kids at the Children's Center (the children of our students,
> faculty, and staff) who regularly visit the upper campus.
> Whatever one's feelings about speech and rights, have we lost all sense
> of common respect and decency toward one another?
> Do we not have a social contract in place that should protect vulnerable
> people from exposure to these kinds of obscenities-whether it's gay
> baiters, anti-abortion pornographers, or college students playing war?
> Is it not permissible to even ask that the demonstrators involved
> consider the unintentional impacts of their actions? Before you line up
> to thank and praise these students, please ask yourself: Is there no
> teachable moment here? Was any consideration given, for instance, to
> the psychological impact such a demonstration might have on kids, or on
> victims of war, former combatants, and others who've been exposed to gun
> As so many of you rattle on (cue the music, we could all sing along)
> with all your clever arguments about rights and political theater and
> witch hunts and talking horses and police states, I'm having a very hard
> time finding any moral center to the conversation.
> John McLain | Academic Grants Manager | The Evergreen State College |
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Mosqueda, Lawrence Sent: Friday, May 22, 2009 2:04 PM
> To: Wolach, David; All Faculty; All Staff; TESC Talk Discussion List;
> Subject: RE: Mideast Solidarity Project Complaints
> I want to thank David Wolach for his excellent comments to Ed Sorger and
> the community regarding the art performance on campus last Wednesday.
> (Tesktalk, 5/21/09, 11PM.) I hope that he has the opportunity to stay
> here, as we need more people who can think clearly. Below are some of
> my comments.
> I always knew that that Evergreen was a bit like Animal Farm, where we
> are all equal, but some are more equal than others, but we have now
> descended into the insanity of Alice In Wonderland. The director of
> Police Services was soliciting complaints (and giving the words on how
> to phrase it) from "victims," who may disagree with the message of a
> protest in an attempt to subvert the ability of students and others to
> exercise their free speech about abuses that are being funded by the US
> government in Israel, Afghanistan and Iraq. No doubt this is all being
> done in the name of freedom and safety (or "feeling safe.") Dick Cheney
> is currently out of work. Maybe he can become an administrator and
> interpreter of law at TESC.
> If you disagree with the message of the performance last week-speak
> back. Some have. That is good. As has been often said, the cure for
> "offensive speech" (a subjective judgment) is more speech.
> Unfortunately that discussion cannot be held in the CPJ since they have
> banned discussion of Israeli-Palestinian issues (in the name of free
> speech and sensitivity, of course). The new Counter Point Journal is
> now the best place to find out what is happening on campus around these
> issues. If you check out issue #2 at: http://cxpj.wordpress.com/ and
> especially read the page 1 article and page 7 article on the protest,
> you will have a fairly good summary of events. You will also notice
> that Officer April Meyers, who Ed Sorger direct us to file complaints,
> had already laid out, verbatim, how the law was broken, even though "She
> acknowledged that she was not present during the performance."
> Extraordinary police skills. We cannot (and I certainly will not) give
> the local men (and women) with guns the authority to be the local art
> critic or arbiter of free speech. The Bill of Rights are not rights
> benevolently given to us by the governmental authorities, they are to
> protect us FROM abuses of these "authorities."
> Ed Sorger has now announced that "At this time I am not going to be
> forwarding criminal charges or violations of the student conduct code
> for a variety of reasons, one of which is that the project was allowed
> to continue after police and administration weighed into the content of
> the project. However, I want to make it very clear that in the future
> if we (police) observe violations like the ones I noted in my prior
> email (below) we will first give a warning prohibiting such conduct and
> give the participants an opportunity to stop or make adjustments and if
> that doesn't work we will cite individuals and/or make arrests."
> (Tesctalk, 5/22/09, 9:30AM)
> Our right to free speech does not rely on the benevolence of the local
> police or the administration. His actions are examples on why many
> students and others have less than total respect for police. A campus
> is not a local shopping mall where "private property" gives mall cops
> the right to run people off, at the will of a local merchant (and even
> that is debatable.) The police and the administration had better think
> very carefully about what type of relationship they want with the
> overall community.
It was a performance—on a college campus where we teach experimental modes of performance as an important and useful tradition of activist art. Your statement, that individuals “crossed over the line and violated the rights of other members in our community” lacks substantiation. What rights were violated? I understand that people were upset and may well have been made nervous and uncomfortable by the performance. I was uncomfortable also. Yet I question whether carrying a plastic gun counts as “unlawful carrying or handling”—this is quite a stretch.
We must defend free speech on this campus, and we must defend the rights of any member of our campus community to “speak” in the broadest sense of the word around issues important to them, whether we like it or not. Let the debates be about the value and merit of the performance, not the right of the performer to speak and act.
You state in your message that “we need to seize this opportunity to recommend some changes for future demonstrations or projects.” I hope that the operative word here is “recommend”. All of us who teach, learn and work in a college setting must take special care to protect and guarantee the speech acts that come from exactly the engagement in intellectual and political life that we demand of each other.
On 5/22/09 9:27 AM, "Sorger, Ed"
Freedom of expression along with free speech and individual rights guaranteed by the constitution is something we all value. My officers are extremely sensitive to these issues on our campus. We show a great deal of care and patience in this area to make sure we don’t violate these rights. The problem that came up with this project and actions of individuals involved in it is that it went too far. It went beyond the rights of these individuals to have freedom of expression during this project and crossed over the line and violated the rights of other members in our community to feel safe to come and go without fear of harassment, intimidation or threats. I have to take into consideration complaints from our community about how they felt when they were approached by these individuals as it is important to understand that it’s really all about the reasonable perception they had when confronted.
Some valuable lessons were learned during this demonstration and we need to seize this opportunity to recommend some changes for future demonstrations or projects. This way we can take into account considerations and rights of all members of our community and hopefully minimize negative reactions like those that came up during this project on May 13th.
At this time I am not going to be forwarding criminal charges or violations of the student conduct code for a variety of reasons, one of which is that the project was allowed to continue after police and administration weighed into the content of the project. However, I want to make it very clear that in the future if we (police) observe violations like the ones I noted in my prior email (below) we will first give a warning prohibiting such conduct and give the participants an opportunity to stop or make adjustments and if that doesn’t work we will cite individuals and/or make arrests. Citing and making arrests is the very last resort, my officers and I will do everything possible to come to a peaceful resolution through education and communication.
Chief of Police Services
The Evergreen State College
Seminar 1 Bldg., Room 2168
2700 Evergreen Pkwy NW
Olympia, WA 98505
I am puzzled by the kind of language you decided to use to express your
views. Based on my interactions with you, my belief is that you are a
thoughtful person and that you wrote these words either in anger or
hurry, or both: "As so many of you rattle on (cue the music, we could
all sing along) with all your clever arguments about rights and
political theater and witch hunts and talking horses and police states,
I'm having a very hard time finding any moral center to the
Upon re-reading several comments, particularly those of Anne Fischel,
David Walach, and Marry Mosqueda, I hope you will revise your opinion,
particularly about your inability to find any moral center.
Historically, there is hardly any doubt, is there, that the powerful
forces have often used their fear to dominate (by conquest, silencing,
killing, and rape) the vulnerable? It was in the name of fear that the
native populations were killed and/or displaced on several continents
(North and South America, and Australia and New Zealand) and their land
permanently occupied. And where settler colonies could not be
established, temporary ones were, and they lasted in duration as long
sometimes as 250 years. Even in non-colonial situations reaching out
for fear as a tactic is not unusual. Recently, Soren Krarup, a member
of the Danish Peoples Party, had this to say about a very small,
impoverished, and discriminated against Muslim immigrant group in
Denmark: "Muslim immigration is a way for Muslims to conquer us, just as
they have done for the past 1,400 years." When ignorance and power are
mixed, they make a dangerous brew.
I am also left puzzled by your question about the "demonstrators
involved consider the unintentional impacts of their actions". What
kind of accommodations do you suggest they/we might consider? My name
used to appear in the telephone book and that had the unintended
consequence of provoking some to make obscene anti-Muslim calls. Should
I have taken that into account and either not have listed my name or
changed it? Is that what a "sense of common respect and decency toward
one another" requires?
Come to think of it, should I worry that the way I dress may evoke in
someone's mind an image that is uncomfortable? Should I shave my beard?
How do I know the impact of any of these (and other) actions/behavior
that might have on others, not having the capacity to know the
experiences of each individual I might across.
And, John, in the midst of this passionate appeal to respect and
decency, whatever happened to your understanding of Evergreen's
commitment to diversity?
Is it really too far fetched, for our sense of common respect and
decency toward one another, to require that we bring to our awareness
not just the unintended consequences of the demonstrators but the
predictable consequences of our public policies, funded by our tax
dollars that are manifested in ways that bring misery to millions,
defames our country, and hardens the positions of the parties to a
conflict who will live in the same general area.
I share these thoughts with you in the spirit of sober reflection
tempered with justice, not to score points.
I have questions, not answers, regarding the debate about free speech. The questions pertain not only to the activities of May 13th, but also to recent questions about the Student Conduct Code regarding civil disobedience. One at a time, then:
1. The street theater of May 13 clearly disturbed some people enough to call the campus police. There were enough calls that the campus police were compelled to write to the campus about it. Calling the campus police, I assume, was not done frivolously or lightly. The burden on those who call the police is to show that there is a compelling reason—a harm done that compromises some other protected right—to limit that speech. People who engage in public activities that have the potential to harm, or that have a strong potential to be interpreted as harmful, often wisely assume that their speech may cause controversies. Here are my questions about this situation: Should the activists raise the principle of free speech to protect what they did, or rather should they focus the attention that they’ve captured on the harm or alleged harm done by their speech? In this case, isn’t the harm done by the speech—fear, intimidation, and so on—precisely the harm to which they wished to direct attention? Wasn’t the point of pushing the envelope precisely to call attention to a harm that the activists think carries more weight than the harm of the speech itself? Shouldn’t envelope-pushers bear the full weight of the reactions they cause—reactions to something controversial and threatening because of the substance and content of the speech? If so, shouldn’t the activists now direct our attention to the experiences of people whose lives they were causing campus community members unwittingly to simulate—people who must deal with checkpoints and intimidation? Why are they directing our attention to their own experiences as citizens exercising their right to free speech? If they see their free speech rights intertwined with the rights of those on whose behalf they acted, can they show how, and thereby teach the rest of the campus what they claim to know?
2. Some of the recent discussions of proposed revisions to the Student Conduct Code have been about the assumption they embody that acts of civil disobedience can result in sanctions. This, too, has been framed at times, such as in the recent faculty meeting, as a "free speech" issue. I was under the impression that acts of civil disobedience are done precisely to call attention to unjust laws, and purposely to incite reactions that call attention to and highlight injustice. Those reactions can include sanctions. The great civil disobedient political actors of our age did not cry "free speech!" when they were arrested or beaten or hosed. In the case of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. composed a "Commitment Card," written in the structure of the 10 Commandments, for Birmingham Campaign protesters to sign. They vowed not to compromise their non-violent principles no matter what was done to them. They knew their acts would incite strong reactions, and even violent ones. (Incidentally, the first "commandment" was a pledge to study and meditate daily on the teachings of Jesus.) Calling upon "free speech" as a right would have distracted hard-won attention from their real aims, which were to challenge directly their on-the-ground experiences of oppression. Is there a meaningful analogy here with Evergreen activists’ acts of free speech or civil disobedience?
Free speech isn’t an absolute right. Speaking responsibility as a citizen activist is a judgment call, and especially when free speakers aim to incite reactions from people by challenging them and performing dramatic public acts. They should not be surprised that they incited dramatic reactions, and that those reactions, in some cases, claim that a line was crossed—a line where rights collide. The sad thing, in my view, is that the "free speech" discussion seems completely to obscure the content and the aims of the street theater. The way this particular form of speech challenged everyday comfort has not been the central content of this discussion.
What would that look like—that is, what would it look like for the discussion to be about the nature of the "comfort zone" that the speech acts threatened? To take up John McLain’s recent critique as an example: John writes that he does not feel comfortable bringing his kids to campus because of what they might see. And yet, little kids all over the world see all kinds of things on a daily basis that Americans on college campuses characteristically do not want their little kids to see—war, death, destruction, starvation, violence, and so on. If the street theater performers wish to make a case for their speech, they might, for example, take John’s objections seriously. That would mean asking themselves if they would want their own kids to see such things, or if they think they should have seen such things when they were kids. I would hope that those questions would not inspire knee-jerk answers. They require some patient thought. If the answer turns out to be "Yes," there’s a serious and probing discussion to be had that genuinely takes on the political ramifications of protecting sensibilities that can be offended by the form of speech that the street theater took.
I’m hoping that interested parties can make their way to such a discussion, and I hope, too, that my remarks might contribute to it.
I would like to return us to Anne Fischel's posting; my impression, and that of many other observers, was that this speech act was also very clearly a performance--the students were even handing out leaflets advertising a follow-up lecture event, at which many of the issues discussed on these lists could have been raised.
I agree that our students--like all responsible artists--should be thinking ahead of time about the impact of their actions in the public sphere. I suspect that those participants who are former members of the armed services were very well aware of the stakes of such a performance. To threaten them with criminal prosecution is to permanently discourage them from explaining the ideas behind the work or engaging with observers who found the work offensive.
I am concerned about an apparent pattern in which the administration is quick to silence what they view as inappropriate forms of protest but unwilling to act when students find themselves the victims of actual violence, on or off campus. I am thinking here of the targeting of student activists in the aftermath of the port protests, but also of the Muslim student who was the victim of hate speech on campus in 2006, and of queer students who find their complaints about bias incidents that threaten their safety routinely disregarded. A significant number of our students do not feel supported by this administration, or even by the faculty, when they take intellectual, artistic, and political risks; this is something we need to account for as an institution and as individuals.
Despite Ed Sorger's reassurances, both his messages continue to move us in the direction of isolating our students rather than supporting their learning. There is a difference between alerting our students to the fact that civil disobedience can result in legal retribution, and automatically sanctioning--or participating in--such retribution.
In solidarity and with respect,
I deeply appreciate Nancy’s contribution to this discussion. There is a great irony here: the point of the Red Square theater/action was to provoke discomfort, to create a moment of personal connection on the part of those drawn up in it to the much greater discomfort—even violent intimidation—experienced by Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints. I am reminded of the old saying, “You point to a problem, and they argue about your finger.”
There are many things one could say about discomfort.
I have always felt that education is fundamentally about discomfort, to the extent that if it doesn’t generate it, education isn’t happening. This takes many forms, of course. There is the discomfort we all feel about our weaknesses and limitations, the fear that we will try our best and fail anyway. Education challenges us this way. I am haunted by the reference made at the memorial event for Ernestine Kimbro—her admonition to “follow your fear”.
Perhaps the discomfort that comes closest to this current controversy is the sensation of cognitive dissonance, to be forced to confront ideas (or worse, facts) that contradict our beliefs about who we are and what claims we can make on others for recognition and approval. This tension can be just too great sometimes: we deny, shut down, evade and make large mental detours to keep the offending thoughts as far away as possible. If education plays with real stakes and doesn’t just confine itself to embellishments, its response is a sort of cognitive aggression, pushing itself on us and demanding to be heard. This is also a task of “art in public places”, particularly when it addresses political themes.
In this context, I was dismayed to see the blunt language proposed in the new Student Conduct Code, with its categorical criminalization of “disruption”. Surely a certain amount of disruption in the classroom and in the college as a whole is not only to be tolerated, but welcomed. We need a bit of disorder to expose the convenient accommodations we tend to make with each other because they get us through the day, but which may come at the cost of honesty and creative discomfort. Of course, disruption can also violate the rights of others, but this suggests the need for judgment and balancing, not the robotic adherence to all rules.
I am aware that this is only half the story. The other half is about empathy and consideration, recognizing the valid interest each of us has in our own well-being. I am old enough to be a veteran of guerrilla theater as it existed in the 1960s. My first serious political shock occurred when I was a freshman at college, and a draft resistance group did an unannounced theater/action in the dining hall. They performed a simulated arrest of a student for being AWOL from the military. Watching this student being chased, then tackled, then (apparently) beaten by the (apparent) MP’s was horrifying. But just as suddenly as it began, the performance ended, and the players (including the arrestee) explained that this was theater and asked us to voice our reactions. They wanted us to decompress, to breathe again, after the moment of crisis. It was a sign of respect for us, and I learned from this that all aggressive political actions, whether guerrilla theater, road blockades or sit-ins should have an element that reaches out to those likely to be disturbed by them, that says, “Our goal is not to hurt you, but to express what we think is a political truth that would otherwise be buried or ignored. We regret the discomfort we may be causing and want to do what we can to rebuild our bond with you.” I have always thought that this is not “only” a moral necessity; it is a wise political move that increases long-term support.
I was not personally present on Red Square for the May 13 action. I do not know if the activists crossed the line between theater and harassment. Actually, there are two lines. One is physical: no one has the right to initiate unwanted physical contact or otherwise physically intimidate. This “otherwise” includes the theatrical use of weapons in a venue like Red Square unless they are clearly unrealistic. The other line is respecting the minimum guarantee we must all have in a community, that we are not verbally insulted or attacked for who we are—for our race, gender, religion, nationality, sexual preference, appearance, etc. We all have a right to be here.
Because I don’t know what actually happened, I don’t want to make assumptions. If a line was crossed, we need to have a full airing of the issue, so that we can better understand this line and why it should be respected. If students or others brought complaints to the campus police solely on the grounds that they felt a mental discomfort from seeing the depiction of Israeli checkpoints, and if the police appeared to endorse this criminalization of creative discomfort, we need to air and learn from that as well.
I have two requests. The first is that, if we are going to have so much debate over free speech, its limits, and the limits to the limits, can we also have a bit of empiricism? In particular, can those who argue that bystanders’ rights were violated refer to the specific acts they witnessed that go beyond protected speech? Second, I would not like to see the right-to-comfort invoked as a self-evident value. I can’t imagine any coherent value system that privileges a “right” to be comfortable. It is not even consistent with unreflective hedonism, since happiness does not result from an absence of tension. (There is quite a bit of research on happiness these days.) It is certainly not consistent with Evergreen’s principles, since “education across significant differences” is all about discomfort.
I have some concerns about the way the campus police have responded to the checkpoint demonstration which I've explained below. On a side note, the last couple messages on this topic seemed suuuuper hostile, and that sucks. I'm hoping we can get back to a more civil discussion. Anyway, here's my two cents:
Ed Sorger said the following with regards to the Checkpoint demonstration :
"At this time I am not going to be forwarding criminal charges or violations of the student conduct code for a variety of reasons, one of which is that the project was allowed to continue after police and administration weighed into the content of the project. However, I want to make it very clear that in the future if we (police) observe violations like the ones I noted in my prior email (below) we will first give a warning prohibiting such conduct and give the participants an opportunity to stop or make adjustments and if that doesn’t work we will cite individuals and/or make arrests. Citing and making arrests is the very last resort, my officers and I will do everything possible to come to a peaceful resolution through education and communication."
Although I am overwhelmed by Ed's benevolence in allowing—just this once, people, so don't get any ideas—free speech to go unpunished, I thought it would be worth mentioning a few concerns this raised for me. In particular, I want to talk briefly about the "criminal charges" that Ed has so generously decided not to pursue and the reasoning he gives for this decision. Notably absent among the reasons given is the glaringly obvious fact that none of the cited sections of the RCW were violated in any way. The only reason these are even being discussed is that Officer Meyers, preeminent legal scholar that she is, felt that it was "apparent" that they were being violated. (In this sense, "apparent" should be taken to mean "obviously visible to Officer Meyers despite her complete absence from the vicinity for the entirety of the demonstration.") Let's take a quick look at each of the relevant sections:
Weapons apparently capable of producing bodily harm — Unlawful carrying or handling.
(1) It shall be unlawful for any person to carry, exhibit, display, or draw any firearm, dagger, sword, knife or other cutting or stabbing instrument, club, or any other weapon apparently capable of producing bodily harm, in a manner, under circumstances, and at a time and place that either manifests an intent to intimidate another or that warrants alarm for the safety of other persons.
Were the demonstrators carrying "weapon[s] apparently capable of producing bodily harm"? Federal law mandates that toy guns be marked with bright orange tips precisely in order to prevent them being mistaken for real weapons, and the toy guns used in the demonstration had obvious orange tips. It cannot be reasonably said that they appeared to be actual firearms. Unless a case can be made that a plastic toy gun in and of itself is a dangerous weapon (wielded as a club perhaps?), this leaves no rational basis to interpret a violation of the section.
Sorger either felt the first section of this chapter was somehow not relevant or he just failed to read it. I'm including it below, as it turns out to be rather important:
The legislature finds that the prevention of serious, personal harassment is an important government objective. Toward that end, this chapter is aimed at making unlawful the repeated invasions of a person's privacy by acts and threats which show a pattern of harassment designed to coerce, intimidate, or humiliate the victim.
The legislature further finds that the protection of such persons from harassment can be accomplished without infringing on constitutionally protected speech or activity.
That Sorger cited RCW 9A.46.020 yet omitted RCW 9A.46.010—explicitly taking RCW 9A.46.020 out of context to make it seem applicable—is completely inappropriate. This entire chapter does not belong in the discussion, and I'd appreciate an explanation as to why either Meyers or Sorger felt that it did.
(1) A person is guilty of disorderly conduct if the person:
(a) Uses abusive language and thereby intentionally creates a risk of assault;
Intentionally disrupts any lawful assembly or meeting of persons without lawful authority;
Intentionally obstructs vehicular or pedestrian traffic without lawful authority; or ...
Disorderly conduct charges are a favorite of those who wish to silence controversial and dissenting voices on university and college campuses, as they purport to allow punishment of certain kinds of speech. This relies on the all-but-overruled holding of Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire (1949), which created a category of speech known as "fighting words" that did not enjoy constitutional protection under the First Amendment. Since that ruling, the courts have steadily narrowed the parameters for what constitutes such speech to the point that it's questionable whether the "fighting words" exception still has any validity. But even neglecting subsequent case law, the original holding required that only words "which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace" qualified as unprotected speech. No such speech is alleged to have taken place.
Basically, what this all boils down to is the following:
- These students staged a demonstration that was controversial, emotionally jarring (as it was meant to be, and needed to be), and constitutionally protected.
- The event evoked strong feelings for many.
- A necessary dialogue began to emerge in response to the event.
- This dialogue was obliterated when campus police made baseless threats against the students involved.
- Ed Sorger sent out a request to students for more information about the alleged violations of state law.
- It began to dawn on Ed that said violations did not occur.
- Ed backed down from his untenable position without admitting any error in judgement.
- Ed simultaneously made thinly veiled threats against any students who felt they too had a right to similarly voice their own opinions.
Campus police owe an apology not only to the students who staged the checkpoint, but to all students. It was the police whose conduct made students feel threatened. They made it clear that Evergreen is not a safe place for those who won’t back down from speaking their mind. This is against everything our college is supposed to stand for.
Hi to all of you, and thanks for the thought each of you is putting into your posts.
Maybe we all want to have coffee sometime? And invite others? This is evolving into what could be a pretty useful and searching discussion--it's difficult to have it over e-mail. If so, then I suggest that perhaps the performance has begun to do the useful work that hopefully it intended.
John, a few things I would like you to think about. First, it would be much better, as you and others have said, to be taking about the performance than about the issues it was designed to reference. Ed Sorger's e-mail created another context--even in the second e-mail which said he would not press charges, he continued to assert the performers had crossed a line and that new guidelines for campus demonstrations needed to be written. That is exactly why some of us directed our comments at the issue of free speech, even while imploring people to talk about the performance.
Secondly, you have said several times that free speech is not endangered. The problem with that statement is that some of us have experienced exactly the opposite. I think that is part of what Zahid is trying to say to you. Certainly for those of us who have spoken out about Middle East issues and found ourselves targeted on "pro-Israel" and far-right websites, the issue of free speech is hardly uncontested. The surveillance initiated by the Bush administration--which the Obama administration has not discarded--also threatens free speech. On our campus the discussion of "free speech" and "civility" has a history, in which some of us have been told that our clothing, our curriculum and our research makes others feel unsafe and should be limited. How does free speech figure in all of this? It is clearly more than simply a law; it is about practices and a lack of consensus about what practices should be protected.
I would like to talk with you further about the performance, nonviolent civil action and what you mean by "consequences". If you experience me as being self-righteous, let me assure you that the often-repeated pronouncement that demonstrators should expect consequences, and that we don't seem to understand that, seems self-righteous to me, as someone who engaged in such protests earlier in my life (when my bones could handle it). Of course, there are consequences. That doesn't eliminate the responsibility of the institutions we are a part of to protect our rights.
Anyway, I said I thought we should talk, and then weighed in anyway. What do you think about having a conversation-any takers?
From: Elizabeth Williamson [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Sun 5/24/2009 9:52 AM
To: McLain, John
Cc: Fischel,Anne; Shariff, Zahid
Subject: Re: Mideast Solidarity Project Complaints
I hope to take some more time over this at a later date, but
please know that I wasn't really attempting to respond to you or
Nancy directly, though I appreciate your difficult position as the
lone (non-police) staff member in this public debate. I'm more
interested, as I said, in what seems to be a pattern of behavior on
the part of the people who make the decisions in this and other cases.
If it was clear which members of the administration were involved
in the decisions behind Ed's e-mails, I would address them
individually. As it stands, I'm referring only to the power structure
that operates on our students, and on all of us as employees. And I
completely agree with you that, within those power structures,
faculty operate with a comparatively high level of privilege -- which
is precisely why I believe it is our responsibility to be vocal in
any conversation that involves the policing of student conduct.
On May 24, 2009, at 9:01 AM, McLain, John wrote:
> Hi Elizabeth,
> A couple of clarifications, since I was the only member of the
> administration in your "To:" line, I wanted to respond to you
> personally. I'm including Anne since this is a direct response to
> her message, and to Zahid because of his message yesterday. And I
> can say that I have appreciated the respect I have received from
> you and them. I've said my bits to the college as a whole,
> however, and I don't want to visit my ideas onto the community
> further when I've already had my time. I also think it's important
> to say to you directly that I responded as an individual member of
> this community with concerns, not as a member of the
> administration. I hope you didn't consider my remarks to be some
> kind of "party line." I assure you, if I were to ask any member of
> the "administration" with any real authority, they'd advise me to
> keep my mouth shut.
> I don't want to silence anybody; I have never said that, and I'm
> not sure if you thought I had. I do think people should remember,
> and in some cases learn, that not all speech is protected. Nor is
> there a free ride for all speech. We seem to create this little
> bubble at Evergreen and it sends a very mixed message to our
> students. It happened with the port protests, the riot, the sit-
> in, and now this. On the one hand, there is a desire to applaud
> our students courage in action as they seek to bring important
> issues to consciousness. On the other hand, there is a mad rush to
> defend students from any consequence resulting from their speech or
> actions. On one hand, we make heroes of them. On the other, if
> they're criticized, we turn them into children in order to protect
> them from harm. There can't be any courage or heroism without the
> threat of consequence.
> I have not defended Ed's approach, and I've come to believe that
> even his involvement at this point in the controversy is completely
> counterproductive. I have told him personally that I am glad
> someone is at least willing to listen to the concerns of community
> members who were troubled (or in the case of one vet with PTSD,
> traumatized; Art mentioned this at the Board of Trustees meeting)
> by the performance. No one else, at least publicly, has seemed the
> least concerned about that -- except for Art's email during the
> performance that referred people to the counseling center.
> But I also don't think there was anything quick about this. This
> message came some two weeks after the incident and after what Ed
> said were a number of complaints. I don't know what the police
> chief should do when he receives complaints. I don't think he can
> simply ignore them. There are at least two views from which to
> look at Ed's email: 1) that it threatened prosecution and dampened
> free speech at the college; and 2) that it responded to the
> complaints of community members who didn't feel they were
> witnessing (involuntarily) a performance, but that they were being
> treated abusively. (These performers were very ugly toward me and,
> I saw, others.) It's possible that it did both, and I don't know
> what Ed intended. That's another irony in this. With the
> performance, we are focused most on what the students intended, not
> the performance's impact. With almost any speech by members of the
> administration, we look solely at impact. Why is it so easy for
> some people to defend the performers' right to speech and also
> dismiss responses of hurt from other members of the community? Do
> community members who experienced this performance that way have no
> recourse at all in a community forum? Instead I feel some emails
> add insult to what they perceive as injury by telling them that
> either they don't really feel that way; or that if they feel that
> way they really shouldn't; or if they feel that way, then good,
> they deserve it because they are so complacent and complicit.
> Let me turn the tables, if you'll allow me. What kind of responses
> would someone receive if they said the following? "In spite of
> Ed's email, I really doubt there will be any impact on free
> speech. I'm sure people will continue to speak up, because they
> always have." I bet that statement, which I don't believe, would
> cause an understandable, recoiling reaction in a number of people.
> But a number of the emails talking about rights have completely
> dismissed the complaints and concerns of community members who did
> not like and didn't think it was right that they were verbally
> assaulted or felt physically threatened (however fleetingly) by
> other members of the college community on the way to their classes
> or jobs.
> I've already commented about the lack of civility of the initial
> performance and a number of the emails in outcry about Ed's
> messages. Here's what I can't figure out: Community members are
> now lecturing me for a lack of civility (no one else, however) for
> my email message, about how I and my children need to be sensitized
> to the plight of Palestinians and their children half-way around
> the globe, and even advise about how to have this conversation with
> them (please). The argument seems to be that because some
> vulnerable people are damaged by this kind of behavior in real life
> in other parts of the world, it's O.K. to risk doing that to other
> vulnerable people here in our part of the world as long as it is
> "just" performance (though how a toddler from the childcare center
> might make that distinction is beyond me). After all, most of us
> -- except for a few -- are just complacent and complicit. I am
> offended and insulted by such an argument, even as I will defend
> someone's right to make that argument. And I'm willing to take my
> lumps for saying so.
> Again, I don't begrudge the students' right to speech. I don't
> appreciate the arrogance and disrespect they displayed in their
> efforts to pound me and others over the head with their message; I
> resent that even more from some faculty members defending them.
> Faculty members are privileged members of our community (witness
> how few staff really feel safe speaking up on controversial
> issues. I assure you, it's not because they are indifferent). And
> the faculty has, I believe, and has often asserted a special role
> in defending the rights, freedoms and responsibilities that accrue
> to life in the academy.
> I don't believe there's any place for any kind of bullying in an
> academic context. But as near as I can figure out, there are folks
> around here who believe in and defend bullying as an inalienable
> right. And because so many seem to care only about the rights of
> students, and apparently nothing for other community members, I do
> still believe many people in this conversation are missing the
> broader ethical and moral implications of the issue.
> I am trying very hard, and consider it part of my operating
> principles, to engage and treat every person on this campus as an
> individual--not as members of the "adminstration," the "faculty,"
> or "students." I fail often, I know. But I hope, whatever our
> opinions, we can all find a way to keep each other's humanity front
> and center in this (yet another) difficult campus conversation.
> Respectfully and with regard,
Both police and protesters share the assumption that the portrayal or the reprisal of violence will help stop the problem addressed.
The protesters assume that the accurate depiction of violence will cause people to stop those actions.
The police assume that the reprisal of violence (punishment) will cause students to stop those actions.
And those who are "victimized" (be they audience or students) respond, correctly, with fear and the desire to expunge the cause.
Violence, depicted or threated, fails because it does not invite reflection and thought. The "correct" response to violence is fear and the speed of its attendant emotions.
That our students and community leaders accept violence (depicted or threatened) as a potential solution for problems is a failure of our community as an institution of higher education: the solutions posed require _no_ education.
Both share the blame, but our community leaders (faculty and administrators) bear the greater responsibility. We need to find ways of creating a community whose reactions to events is not a reproduction of existing problems. Then, we might begin to approach the idea of a "higher" education.
The speed at which our administrators responded to the depiction of past violence with the threat of future violence demonstrates how deeply dependent we collectively are on the maintenance of violence as a solution to social problems.