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Campus Report: When Students Protest Speakers On Human Rights Grounds…

March 9, 2012, 9:58 pm

Maybe students at Cambridge and Zenith should have had a Tea Party instead?

…They usually get squashed, whether the protests are violent or non-violent.

British university students, who revived their reputation for radicalism last spring after unprecedented budget cuts and tuition increases, took it to the streets again today to make a point about sexual violence and women’s rights. The Cambridge University’s Women’s Campaign staged a large demonstration outside the Cambridge Union during a speech given by former head of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused last year of raping a hotel chambermaid in New York.  Perhaps because of elaborate security precautions, the protest turned violent:  two students were arrested in scuffles with the police, and two other students are being held for spraying graffiti on the Union.

Journalists were not permitted in the building.  However students “who had been in the audience said Mr Strauss-Kahn was asked one question about the incident, following the speech, and told listeners that he had been ‘acquitted’,” according to the UK Press Association report.

If that’s what Strauss-Kahn said, it isn’t true. The charges were dropped on August 23 2011 because the Manhattan District Attorney’s office lost confidence in the accuser’s story. Even in France, I don’t think that’s the same thing as being acquitted.

Meanwhile, back at my old stomping grounds, Zenith University, Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (who is very keen on the human rights of corporations, but not so much the human rights that might attach to actual people) was greeted by student and faculty protesters when he came to deliver the annual endowed Hugo Black Lecture on the First Amendment.

Here is a summary of Scalia’s speech on originalism from some students who were there on behalf of Wesleying, a Zenith student blog.  The notes on history are confusing, but perhaps only because His Honor, like other members of the Federalist Society, is confused about history.  No, Justice Scalia, originalism is bad history and leads to the recirculation of bad history in the form of public policy; and yes, Justice Scalia, originalism is a cover for conservative political agendas, if only because there is no difference between the cover and the substance. An analogy one might draw is whether belief in the Virgin Birth is a “cover” for Catholicism, which it is not:  the one is simply an extension of the other. Similarly, originalism is the essence as well as the face of conservatism, because it argues that we should all be living in the (conserved) social, political and moral world of the late eighteenth century when about 5% of American adults were able to vote, all of them were male and white, and those men who had the most property had the greatest rights.

While one student asked whether Scalia would rule in favor of slavery if it still existed (he said yes), what someone really should have asked him was why corporations are entitled to free speech when the people who work for, and are governed by them, are not entitled to free speech when on corporate property.  For example, Zenith students standing silently in protest during the talk, wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods to represent Scalia’s participation in the continuing scandal of torture and long-term imprisonment for accused and untried terrorists, were forcibly ejected from the event by university officials.  The university also prepared for the protests by sending an email to students warning them (in a nutshell) that their right to free speech did not include protesting the event in any way that (in the university’s judgment) kept Scalia from “being heard.” Because the university is incorporated as a private entity, they are legally entitled to this policy and to decide the terms of its enforcement regardless of what might be at stake morally for the students.

Which is all well and good, I suppose, except that it isn’t clear how silent protest violates that policy.  Furthermore, Scalia himself ought to have insisted that the doctrine of originalism would dictate that the student protesters be allowed to remain.  As he wrote in a concurrence to the Citizens United decision that has driven our political system to new lows this election season, the First Amendment was written in “terms of speech, not speakers” and that “its text offers no foothold for excluding any category of speaker.” (These quotes are cited here; for context, the full concurrence can be read here.)

What Zenith officials (who are not originalists, but liberal pragmatists) should have said in their email — and what all students who attend private colleges and universities should know — is that, just as there is no right to free speech in the United Kingdom,  there is no absolute right to free speech on private property in the United States either. Universities, like Wal-Mart, are private property, and university administrations get to decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t.

And ask yourself, would Wal-Mart let someone stand in the parking lot with a sign saying that Wal-Mart is a food stamp profiteer? No.  So a university is also not going to allow a student to silently point out that an invited guest, who happens to be on the Supreme Court, is complicit in the destruction of democracy and the violation of international human rights law either. Absolutely not.

Even at an event held to celebrate free speech.

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Update: Here is an account of the Zenith protests, with video, courtesy of David Lat at Above the Law. I have also linked to David’s more complete account of the Scalia speech above.

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