American University an ‘unsafe space’ for controversial event

Libertarian and pro-free speech groups are concerned over American University’s (AU) last-minute cancellation of an event criticizing Title IX.

Title IX: feminism, sex and censorship on campus” will ask a panel of experts questions about changing attitudes towards women on college campuses. Spiked, a British anti-misanthropy current-affairs magazine and one of the event’s co-sponsors, said in a statement to Campus Reform that AU Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) had “reserved and cleared” the event in August.

Annamarie Rienzi, the D.C. State Chair of YAL, a member of AU YAL, and a Campus Reform Campus Correspondent, told Campus Reform that the group chose to book the event as a group meeting instead of a paid speaker event, noting that many student groups follow this practice when speakers agree to appear for free and “there have rarely been problems in the past.”

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When AU told the group that the initial venue was booked, YAL applied for another venue. The administration then requested a meeting with the students, but refused to meet with Rienzi because she was not an officer in AU’s YAL chapter.

YAL claims that AU staff later gave the group verbal confirmation that the school would provide a venue for the panel. One week before the event, however, administrators reported that the auditorium was “no longer available,” and on Monday the school told YAL that the event would not be taking place at all.

The panel will instead be held at the offices of Reason magazine at 7:00 P.M. Thursday.

American University told Campus Reform that while the group submitted a request to book a venue on September 19, “no spaces have been officially reserved.”

Since it maintains that YAL never finalized its booking, the school argues that “[t]he issue is not American University intervening close to the event; it is that the group did not complete the protocol in time to schedule the space.”

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After the event was canceled, Rienzi approached AU Student Activities Associate Director Calvin Haney to ask whether YAL would be facing similar resistance from the administration if the topic were less controversial. She recounts being told that “you wouldn’t be remiss to make that assumption.”

While some universities have cited safety concerns as justification for cancelling conservative speakers, it appears that students who disagreed with the event’s theme were not planning anything rowdy. A now-deleted Facebook event, sponsored by the American Association of University Women, called for students to attend and ask challenging questions.

“In all my conversations with the administration they never once brought up the protest,” Rienzi recalled, noting that she and other YAL members encouraged left-wing students, including the AAUW, to attend and engage panelists.

“We wanted it to be a conversation, so we were welcoming their questions.”

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Spiked describes its “Unsafe Space” tour as a response to “an unholy alliance between a self-raised army of student offence-takers” and “busybody bureaucrats willing to ban a speaker or snuff out inconvenient thought as soon as someone cries ‘bigot.’”

The series aimed to promote free speech as essential to the mission of higher education and not simply provoke.

The AU event, Spiked’s first stop, will explore how the expansion of Title IX and “colleges’ preoccupation with fighting sexism and sexual-assault” have rolled back liberal advances in higher education and infantilized women on campus. It will feature a range of speakers, including former ACLU President Nadine Strossen, Reason Associate Editor Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Spiked Associate Editor Ella Whelan, and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Executive Director Robert Shibley.

Tom Slater, Spiked’s coordinator of the “Unsafe Space” tour, told Campus Reform, that while the event may be controversial, “it is a shame AU apparently just could not accommodate us. This tour is about challenging censorship and taking on the subjects that have become taboo on campus.”

Slater said that The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is looking into the case.

Rienzi pointed out that AU “knew the topic as early as August,” and that, “[i]t really seems fishy that they chose to cancel the event so close to the date, when we have no recourse to make other preparations to host it on campus.”

“You could call it a misunderstanding, I would call it suspicious,” Slater added, noting that “the first stop on the Unsafe Space Tour was seemingly deemed too unsafe to hold on a campus has only reminded us what we are up against.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @SFarkas48