Black Lives Matter protests American Civil Liberties Union

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Sept. 27, Black Lives Matter protestors at the College of William and Mary interrupted “Students and the First Amendment,” a scheduled event co-sponsored by AMP and the American Civil Liberties Union.

First Amendment rights have dominated national conversation in recent months, with opposing sides debating the extent to which hate speech counts as free speech. Following the Aug. 11-12 Charlottesville protests, the ACLU voiced a decisive stance on the issue by defending white nationalists’ right to free speech. The move attracted widespread backlash from ACLU supporters and detractors alike, as well as the College’s BLM chapter, which responded by staging its Sept. 27 protest.

The ACLU discussion never occurred because protesters took over the stage within five minutes of Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia Claire Guthrie Gastañaga’s entrance. Signs in hand, the protesters shouted chants such as “liberalism is white supremacy” and “the revolution will not uphold the constitution.”

Twenty minutes into the protest, AMP Director of Internal Affairs Hasini Bandara ’18 approached the group with a microphone and gave members an opportunity to read their prepared statement.

In the statement, BLM criticized the ACLU’s approach to white supremacy in regard to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, suggesting that the organization provides an unnecessary platform for white supremacists.

“When is the free speech of the oppressed protected?” a BLM group representative asked. “We know from personal experience that rights granted to wealthy, white, cis, male, straight bodies do not trickle down to marginalized groups. We face greater barriers and consequences for speaking.”

“When is the free speech of the oppressed protected?” a BLM group representative asked. “We know from personal experience that rights granted to wealthy, white, cis, male, straight bodies do not trickle down to marginalized groups. We face greater barriers and consequences for speaking.”

After reading the statement aloud, the group’s representative took her place back in line, and the protesters continued to chant.

One student who attended the event, Laith Hashem ’19, was bothered by protesters’ refusal to engage in an open, two-sided discussion.

“I think they had every right to do what they did. I don’t agree with their method, [but] they’re completely entitled to their opinions,” Hashem said. “But the thing I disagreed with most was that every opportunity they had to have a discussion, both with the speaker and the audience, they responded by increasing their volume and shouting louder.”

Thirty minutes into the protest, the discussion was cancelled.

“It was a collective decision from people in the AMP leadership team and our advisers,” AMP director Miguel Dayan ’19 said. “It was clear that we [were] unable to continue with the event, and it was appropriate to cancel.”

After the cancellation was announced, remaining students clustered around Gastañaga, hoping to ask questions and voice concerns. These students dispersed, however, when the protesters began circling around them, drowning out Gastañaga and chanting with increased volume.

William & Mary has a powerful commitment to the free play of ideas. We have a campus where respectful dialogue, especially in disagreement, is encouraged so that we can listen and learn from views that differ from our own, so that we can freely express our own views, and so that debate can occur. Unfortunately, that type of exchange was unable to take place Wednesday night when an event to discuss a very important matter – the meaning of the First Amendment — could not be held as planned. 

The event, co-sponsored by William & Mary’s student-run programming organization Alma Mater Productions (AMP) and the ACLU, was entitled “Students and the First Amendment.” The anticipated conversation never occurred when protestors refused to allow Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, to be heard. The protesters then drowned out students who gathered around Ms. Gastañaga seeking to ask her questions, hear her responses and voice their own concerns. 

Silencing certain voices in order to advance the cause of others is not acceptable in our community. This stifles debate and prevents those who’ve come to hear a speaker, our students in particular, from asking questions, often  hard questions, and from engaging in debate where the strength of ideas, not the power of shouting, is the currency. William & Mary must be a campus that welcomes difficult conversations, honest debate and civil dialogue. – Full statement provided by William and Mary College President Taylor Reveley

Hashem, who was one of the students hoping to speak to Gastañaga, said he was disturbed by the aggression he perceived, as it bordered on not just verbal assault, but physical intimidation.

“Silencing certain voices in order to advance the cause of others is not acceptable in our community,” College President Taylor Reveley said in a written statement. “This stifles debate and prevents those who’ve come to hear a speaker, our students in particular, from asking questions, often hard questions, and from engaging in debate where the strength of ideas, not the power of shouting, is the currency.”

Although the protesters identified themselves as merely “concerned students,” the College’s BLM chapter took credit on its Facebook page through a livestream of the event, as well as a written post stating, “Tonight, we shut down an event at William & Mary where Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, was speaking. In contrast to the ACLU, we want to reaffirm our position of zero tolerance for white supremacy no matter what form it decides to masquerade in.”

Students in attendance at the event were disappointed that the discussion could not take place as planned. Tyler Senio ’19 took issue with the protesters’ method but recognized their right to assemble.

“I do not believe that preventing discussion from happening is a viable pathway to get what you want,” Senio said. “I believe it is important for people to express themselves and stand up for the issues they believe in. However, once these expressions start to negatively affect others and prevent progress in the area they are protesting, that’s when the justification becomes questionable.”

Dayan did not expect the event to be protested but said, on behalf of AMP, that he was pleased to have a civically engaged campus.

“We are proud of be a part of a politically active community that voices their concerns and fights for their rights,” Dayan said. “However, we hoped for a two-sided dialogue so our students could learn about their rights and [have] the chance to question, critique and engage in conversation with the director herself.”

This event was planned five months prior, and according to Dayan, as of now there are no plans to reschedule.