There’s lots of outrage online about Smith College students barring media from a sit-in yesterday. But digging deeper, it’s clear that this wasn’t a traditional “sit-in” — the event had an announced start and end time, presented no demands, and apparently proceeded with the blessing of the administration.

It was less a sit-in, in other words, than an informal conference or meet-up.

Given that, it’s not clear to me why anyone would think the organizers had an obligation to invite the media. (Whether it was bad PR to turn journalists away is another story.)

This is a real question I’m asking. Not rhetorical, not snarky: What principle says that the organizers of yesterday’s Smith College event had an obligation to allow media to attend, and what’s the nature of that obligation? (I’m assuming that nobody’s arguing they had a legal obligation, since — as the Smith administration pointed out — the college is a private institution.)

My own sense is that it’s generally a bad idea for large-scale student groups to shut media out of conventions where leaders are being chosen and platforms are being adopted. I remember recoiling, years ago, when I first read about SDS barring reporters from their last national convention in 1969, and I still have the same negative reaction today. An SDS convention was a public event of public interest, my gut tells me, and it should have been open to the public.

In other cases, I know that there are legal arguments to be made — some institutions and organizations are covered by open meetings laws which mandate that the public, including press, be allowed to attend certain parts of certain meetings.

But yesterday’s event at Smith wasn’t a business meeting of a charity or a governing board or a student association. It wasn’t a rally in a public space. It wasn’t a demonstration that closed down a street or a bridge. It was a group of students getting together to talk and hang out and connect with each other.

What’s the principle that says that those students had a responsibility to invite the press to join them?

I just learned on Twitter that someone has defaced the official portraits of black professors at Harvard Law School with black tape.

Let’s talk about this.

This defacement could be some sort of hoax or inside joke. It could be somehow meaningless or random. It’s not an act of physical violence or a direct threat, and if the tape comes off easily and cleanly, it’s not even destruction of property. Taken in isolation, it’s easy to dismiss. There’s no way to know for sure what it means. And so people who think everything is fine on campus will shrug. In isolation, it could mean anything or nothing.

But at the same time, there’s something really chilling about it. It’s creepy. It’s nasty. It could be a threat, or a warning. And it turns out that it didn’t happen in isolation.

Here’s some context: Harvard Law School’s seal features three sheaves of wheat commemorating the coat-of-arms of HLS’s founding benefactor — Isaac Royall Jr., a slaveowner and slave-trader. Students at the law school have been campaigning for a new seal for months, and last night activists taped over the existing seal on a variety of signs around HLS. The tape on the photographs of black HLS professors was discovered today.

It seems clear, then, that the defacement of the professors’ portraits was a response to the campaign against the seal — an erasure of black faculty in response to the proposed erasure of the school’s slaveowning founder.

Even so, of course, some will say it’s just tape. (It is.) Some will say it might be the work of the anti-racist activists themselves. (It could be.) Others will say it’s an ugly incident but a small one — cause for ridicule, perhaps, but not outrage, or just some scraps of adhesive to be tossed in the trash and forgotten.

If you start from the premise that this was a minor deviation from a generally supportive environment for black students at Harvard Law, or from the premise that anyone who’s made it as far as HLS is doing pretty well, all things considered, you’re not going to see it as a big deal. And if students rise up in protest against it, if they stage a rally or a sit-in or start reading lists of demands, you’re going to be bewildered, and maybe annoyed.

But student activists on campus don’t see this as an isolated incident. They walk past a seal that honors a slaver every day, and when they speak up against it, they’re told that it’s not a symbol of hate, but of history, and that at any rate the history of racism and the history of Harvard are so intertwined that it’d be impossible to purge all such symbols — so there’s no reason to try.

In that context, and in the context of your other experiences at Harvard, the tape on your professors’ photos — and only on the photos of the professors who look like you — may feel like an attack, like an assault, like an attempt to purge you, and them, from the institution.

And if you feel it that way, then at some point you’re going to get angry. At some point you’re going to stand up.

And if, when you start standing up, a bunch of people start attacking you as intolerant and obnoxious and hostile, you’re going to wonder where those people’s anger has been all this time. And if they, watching you yell or hearing your demands, condemn you as an enemy of free speech while remaining silent about your right and need to speak out against the stream of provocations that brought you to this point, you’re going to start drawing some conclusions about those critics.

Because if they’re not standing up for your free speech rights as a protester, and they are standing up for the free speech rights of the people lurking in the shadows trying to intimidate you and scare you and shut you up?

Well, you may well conclude that that tells you something about what they think free speech is, what they think free speech means, and who they think free speech is for.

Last Friday, students sitting-in at Amherst college called on president Biddy Martin to — among other things — announce that the college “do[es] not tolerate the actions of student(s)” who posted anti-activist “Free Speech” posters on campus, and to inform those who posted the flyers “that Student Affairs may require them to go through the Disciplinary Process if a formal complaint is filed, and that they will be required to attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.”

In the week that followed, the Amherst activists have emerged — unsurprisingly — as Exhibit A for the argument that today’s campus activists are hostile to free speech and expression.

It looks like that argument may need to be adjusted a bit.

In a new statement released this evening, the Amherst activists offered some “necessary and much overdue … clarifications and updates” to their demands. In that statement, they say that the original demands that drew such negative attention were made “in haste” by a large, informal group of students responding to a quickly-changing and highly charged situation.

Those students were acting, the statement says, from a position of “urgency and emotion.” Their demands were intended (and described at the time) as provisional, but the “very public way” in which they were put forward drew more attention than was anticipated, giving the unintended impression that they were “final and non-negotiable.” Today, they say, meetings with administrators and public statements from the college have given them hope for the prospects for “collaboration with administrators, faculty, and staff over an extended period of time. Since Sunday, the Amherst activists have been engaged in discussions around how to “create more thoughtful shorter term and longer term goals” that will “keep the spirit” of the original demands while “acknowledg[ing] the need for revision and thoughtfulness.”

On the subject of freedom of expression specifically, the statement says that “the movement, both at its inception and now, by no means intend to stifle free speech.”

The group’s new demands have apparently not yet been released, and at this writing the original demands remain up on its website, so the precise nature of their criticism of the previous demands remains unclear. The strong impression left by tonight’s statement, however, is one of regret for their previous stance and of a commitment to freedom of speech in their future actions.

Events have been moving quickly on the country’s campuses this month, and plenty of people — students, faculty, administrators, and off-campus critics — have said and done things in haste that they’ve since had good reason to reconsider.

The Amherst students are to be commended for confronting that fact head-on.


Yesterday morning, Egyptian-American journalist and activist Mona Eltahawy tweeted the following series of statements from an airplane waiting to leave JFK airport for London Heathrow:


Some background:

SOAS is the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, and there have been a series of controversies in England recently over organizations and institutions “no-platforming” speakers whose views they find repugnant or dangerous — refusing to share a stage with them or extend invitations to them to speak. Eltahawy’s allegations were quickly disseminated online as the country’s newest no-platforming scandal.

The truth is more complicated.

Representatives of the SOAS Students’ Union quickly denied that they had taken any vote or other formal action to bar Eltahawy or to set conditions on any potential appearance. In a formal statement several hours later, the Union denied that any no-platforming proposal had been so much as “discussed at any level within our Executive Body.”

According to them, moreover, Eltahawy had never been invited to speak on campus. A student had suggested bringing her, and the Union, “happy to host this speaker,” had entered into “discussions with the student about the format of the event (whether it should be in a panel format or just the speaker alone).” The statement left the impression that the status of Eltahawy’s proposed speech had not yet been resolved.

Some time later, SOAS-SU updated the statement with additional comments from Aida Balafkan and Jonelle Twum, two students who serve as the Union’s “Part-Time Womens’ Officers.”

Balafkan and Twum said that they had been approached earlier this month about the possibility of Eltahawy speaking on campus on the evening of December 9 — apparently the only time she would be available on her current trip. The two discussed the possibility with one of the Union’s officers, and decided to try to build a panel around Eltahawy’s visit.

Their statement continues:

We tried our best to look for other panellists but again the time and energy that we had was very limited. We also find out there was no suitable room available on that specific date.

Already working on two events for the end of November, one on a panel discussion about intergenerational feminism on 30th, having essay deadlines in December and the limited time we had, we decided to withdraw and not host any event in December. The decision was never based around whether we should have Mona Eltahawy as a guest but rather more on a combination of practical reasons mentioned earlier. We simply physically and emotionally could not organise an event in the short time we had.

The students said that while there had been “serious critical discussions around some of [Eltahawy’s] works and views” in the course of the attempt to put the event together, the decision not to host the appearance was made because of practical and logistical considerations.

The statement ends by indicating that the event is now going forward under the direction of the Union’s “Co-President Activities & Events, Zain Dada.”

A few things leap out here.

First, Eltahawy’s initial claims appear to have been inaccurate in several respects — unsurprisingly, given the complexity of the situation and her lack of direct contact with the Union. There was apparently no “vote[] to not let [her] speak,” and no discussion of the issue between top SU leaders.

Eltahawy’s claim that she was “prevented” from speaking also seems questionable. According to the various statements coming from the Union, there was a proposal to bring her to campus, discussions about logistics, and a decision not to host the event. There was, they say, never a formal invitation — the event just didn’t come together.

This is a common occurrence with any speaker in any context — personally, I’d estimate that for every time I am brought to a campus to speak, there are three or four serious expressions of interest from students or groups that never come to fruition. That’s the nature of public speaking generally, and of working with student organizations in particular. That’s just how it works.

Were Eltahawy’s views an element of the decision to not move forward with the event? It appears that they may have been. The students who initiated the process say that it provoked “serious critical discussions around some of her works and views,” and they don’t close the door on the possibility that those discussions played a complicating role in the planning of the talk.

But again, that’s neither unusual or sinister. A group contemplating a decision to devote time, money, and resources to host a speaker has every right to consider that speaker’s views in deciding whether to extend an invitation, and every right to structure the event how they choose. If the speaker objects to the conditions set by the inviting group, they can negotiate or decline. Again, that’s just how it works.

I don’t know exactly why this event fell apart. It seems plausible that opposition to Eltahawy’s views played a role. But even if so, that wouldn’t be evidence of the SOAS Student Union’s hostility to freedom of speech.

It’d just be evidence of them exercising their own freedom of association.

This morning I appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal to discuss American student protest past and present. I’m working on getting the video embedded, but in the meantime a partial index of the (many!) topics we discussed follows.

•          •          •

01:37 — The role of student activism in shaping the American university.

02:45 — Conservative and non-partisan student organizing.

04:54 — The rising cost of higher education in the United States.

06:31 — Was Mizzou a turning point for American universities?

09:30 — The history of protest among high-school and younger students.

11:29 — The Israel divestment movement.

14:02 — Media scrutiny of student protesters.

16:38 — Are student activists “children”?

18:27 — Should higher education be free?

19:20 — Student struggles for a direct role in university governance at public and private colleges.

20:30 — Student networks and social media past and present.

22:57 — Activism by and for students with disabilities.

25:53 — Racial tensions and racial justice organizing on today’s campuses.

26:57 — Free speech, hostility to speech, and “whining.” (Multiple questions.)

33:42 — Student protest outside the US, “no-platforming” in Britain.

35:49 — Hate speech and threats, self-segregation, and “trivial” student protest.

•          •          •

I’ve previously appeared on a couple of panels that C-SPAN has televised, but this was my first experience participating in a call-in show on the network. I have to say, I really enjoyed it. The callers gave me a chance to range quite a bit more widely than I usually do in interviews, and though I tripped myself up a couple of times (1766’s butter rebellion took place at Harvard, not Princeton; the Student Homophile League was chartered at Columbia in 1967, not 1968), I was grateful for the opportunity to engage with such thoughtful, diverse perspectives.

When I arrived in the studio I did not expect to be talking about no-platforming in Britain or efforts to “cure” left-handedness in 20th century American schools, and I’m glad to have had the chance to do both.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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