Northwestern condemns disruptive protest against ICE rep

Many students, and even some faculty members, are upset by the university's statement, insisting that academic freedom and free speech do not apply to "hate" speech, which they equate to actual "violence."

Northwestern University has denounced the student protesters who shut down a classroom talk by an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) representative last week.

Northwestern University has denounced the student protesters who shut down a classroom talk by an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) representative last week.

“We are deeply disappointed in the conduct of a group of students Tuesday that resulted in the disruption of a lecture in a Northwestern University class,” President Morton Schapiro and Provost Daniel Linzer declared in a statement. “The behavior of our students in this incident was disrespectful, inappropriate and contrary to the values of the University.”

[RELATED: UC proposes ‘free speech deans’ to prevent disruptive conduct]

According to The Daily Northwestern, Professor Beth Redbird had invited a public relations representative for ICE to address her sociology class Tuesday, which was to be followed by another presentation from a student who was in the country illegally.

Around the time that the class began, however, protesters entered the classroom to protest, disrupting the event, standing up in the room, and carrying banners that read, “F**k ICE,” forcing Redbird to cancel the talk out of concern for the speaker’s safety.

“At Northwestern, our faculty members are free to encourage academic discussions within their classrooms, including inviting speakers of their choice,” Schapiro and Linzer continued their statement. “While we understand the point of view expressed by the students protesting the guest lecturers invited to speak here, the resulting disturbance not only limited the academic inquiry central to our campus, it also forced invited speakers to leave and violated the rights of other enrolled students who were present to learn.”

The statement concludes by reiterating the importance of free expression, arguing that the appropriate way to counter “difficult” and “polarizing” ideas is through “more debate...not censorship,” and saying that the administration is currently working to “determine the appropriate actions” to take in response to the protest.

[RELATED: UMass Amherst students throw temper tantrum at free speech event]

The protesters were associated with the student groups MEChA de Northwestern, Black Lives Matter NU, the Coalition of Students for Immigrant Justice, the Asian Pacific American Coalition, NU Queer Trans Intersex People of Color, and Rainbow Alliance—several of which groups released statements defending their participation.

MEChA de Northwestern is the the university chapter for “Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán” (MEChA), a Hispanic nationalist organization that has been criticized as a racist separatist group, and on its Facebook page, the group openly claimed that its goal was “to disrupt and demonstrate that ICE is not welcome and that Northwestern will be a safe campus for undocumented immigrants.”

Despite Redbird’s plan to showcase both sides of the debate during her class, MEChA member April Navarro insisted that the group has no interest in promoting the free exchange of ideas.

“We’re not interested in having those types of conversations that would be like, ‘Oh, let’s listen to their side of it’ because that’s making them passive rule-followers rather than active proponents of violence,” she told the Daily Northwestern. “We’re not engaging in those kinds of things; it legitimizes ICE’s violence, it makes Northwestern complicit in this. There’s an unequal power balance that happens when you deal with state apparatuses.”

[RELATED: Berkeley students want to fight fascism by banning speech]

Northwestern’s BLM chapter also chimed in on Facebook while re-posting MEChA’s post promoting the protest.

“This university must realize that organizations such as ICE cannot be given a platform to mitigate the harm they impose onto immigrant communities, specifically those of color,” the group asserted. “The violence inflicted upon our communities is not simply a ‘fabulously interesting’ topic for neoliberal discussion. Come thru to help shut this down.”

One student in Redbird’s class, however, told the Daily Northwestern that students had agreed to the invitation in advance, noting that Redbird had framed it as a way of getting them to explore beyond their comfort zones.

“We wanted ICE to come. There was a general consensus,” freshman Nefertari Bilal explained. “We wanted to have the opportunity to see how they present themselves, how does their outreach work. How do they try to convince people to follow their point of view and to like challenge them on…what they were saying.”

Classmate Deborah Shoola, conversely, felt that the protesters were justified in disrupting the class, and that those who see the demonstration as an impingement on free speech simply don’t understand the danger posed by hate speech.

“Thinking about this protest in a free speech versus hate speech is very one-dimensional,” she stated. “We’re talking about a group that represents so much hate and fear, bringing them onto campus makes students uncomfortable.”

[RELATED: ‘Sanctuary campus’ leaders admit that colleges can’t ban ICE]

Faculty members in the Latina and Latino Studies Program (LLSP) and Asian American Studies Program (AASP) advanced a similar line of argumentation in an open letter supporting the student protesters, declaring their support for academic freedom even as they insisted that academic freedom should not apply in the current context.

“We honor academic freedom at the university and respect professors’ discretion in inviting guest speakers of various ideologies and political positions to speak on campus,” they write. “However, the presence of an ICE representative at Northwestern represents something beyond academic freedom. It compromises the safety of some of our more vulnerable students.”

Redbird, for her part, defended the invitation, saying it is her job to ensure that students are exposed to the full range of viewpoints on important issues.

“In our society, knowledge is power, and I want to make my students as powerful as possible,” she said. “When we keep ourselves ignorant, we deny ourselves power.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @JustinCaruso2