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CSU-Northridge declines to criticize students who shut down ‘denialist’ scholar’s lecture (VIDEO)

UCLA First Amendment Law Prof. Eugene Volokh is really teed off at California State University-Northridge, and you don’t want to get on his bad side.

The university declined to say anything negative about Armenian student groups that shut down a lecture about army officer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey, by Baylor University’s George Gawrych, a scholar of military history.

It happened during Ataturk Week, a series of events hosted by the Association of Turkish Americans of Southern California. As The Sundial reported:

Over 20 protesters stood up from their seats, turned their backs on Gawrych and repeatedly chanted “Turkey guilty of genocide” and “genocide denialist.”

Gawrych waited briefly as other attendees voiced their opinions to let him speak, until he began walking up and down the aisle trying to get the protestors to face him. …

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“Our initial message was to stop the denial of genocide that cost the lives of millions,” said Eric Badivian, an Armenian protestor.

Many Armenians feel that Gawrych’s book “The Young Atatürk: From Ottoman Soldier to Statesman of Turkey” praises a leader who played a role in the Armenian genocide. …

Gawrych was unable to speak about his book or comment on the protest once police had him leave the library.

Writing at The Washington Post, UCLA’s Volokh is outraged that the CSU administration let students get away with this attack on free speech – against an award-winning scholar invited by CSU faculty, no less:

Naturally, no speaker should be shouted down this way, whether he wrote an award-winning book or not — but the stature of Gawrych’s work is just a reminder of how deeply the movement to suppress speech has spread at American universities. …

Defenders of free speech often warn of the slippery slope: Once we allow suppression even of foolish, lightweight, uneducated speakers, this will lead to suppression of serious scholars as well. Such slippery slope concerns are often pooh-poohed as a paranoid “parade of horribles.” Well, here’s the latest float in that parade, come to a university near me. And you’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you.

The administration showed cowardice by refusing to denounce this shameless exercise of the heckler’s veto.

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Its statement to Volokh said it was acting “in the interest of public safety” when it preemptively ended Gawrych’s speech and refused to say whether it would punish any students for their role:

CSUN is proud of its strong ties with the Armenian community, which has provided the university with the opportunity and resources to offer a distinguished and respected Armenian Studies program and serve the largest number of Armenian students at any university outside of Armenia. At the same time, and as a higher education institution committed to the values of scholarship, knowledge and the exchange of ideas, it is important for our university to be open to a wide range of visiting speakers and scholars, even those whose ideas we may disagree with.

Strong words! Of course, Armenian anti-denialist activists will only be emboldened by CSU’s pussyfooting. Volokh notes:

If you look at the video, you’ll see that police officers were present. I would have expected that the university would have said at least something about how shouting down speakers is bad behavior — but nothing along those lines has come around yet.

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The CSUN Armenian Students Association told Volokh that it and the Armenian Youth Federation were involved in the protest, following an unsuccessful appeal to CSUN to cancel Gawrych’s talk:

Please do not dismiss our concerns as hyperemotional. This issue is about intolerance …

It is quite bizarre that an event revolving around the ignorance and injustices against humanity is being allowed to take place on campus. This is for two reasons: 1) CSUN is a large proponent of the inclusion and respect of all individuals, regardless of gender, race, and ethnicity, with a zero tolerance policy regarding hatred and 2) Our campus is a well known supporter of the Armenian Community and its cause. …

We would like to add that we are in no way denying ATASC’s right to the freedom of speech. However, for CSUN to give a platform to an organization that glorifies a government killing its own people is not only an atrocious act within itself, but also degrading to this university’s reputation as a world-class public institution.

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You can see Volokh raising a brow in response to this stunning dismissal of other people’s views because they contain “false information and hatred”:

So let’s see: The university is supposed to exclude historians who want to speak positively about important historical leaders, based on students’ ideas about which views are not “acceptable or appropriate.”  Indeed, the university is not supposed to “allow[]” such a talk “to take place on campus.”

He notes that activists pulled the same stunt against Gawrych at nearby Chapman University, only this time they faced counter-protesters – and had the chutzpah to complain about it.

The Panther reports that campus police showed up and removed “about 60 attendees who were there in support of Turkey,” moving them down the hallway “while [Gawrych] spoke to the protesters.”

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Turkish Consul General Raife Gülru Gezer, who introduced Gawrych, was advised by police to leave “for her own safety” even though she brought several of her own private security officers:

Ergun Kirlikovali, the former president of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations who attended the event, said that he felt his First Amendment rights were violated by the protesters.

“They have trampled upon my freedom of speech,” Kirlikovali said. “This is not what higher education is about. We can talk about facts, figures, backgrounds, even feelings and emotions. But we don’t try to silence each other. That’s what they tried to do tonight.”

If the Chapman administration had a response to the heckler’s veto, it’s not posted in its press room.

Read Volokh’s entry at the Post and coverage by The Sundial and The Panther.

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.