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Student op-ed on criticism of disruptive student protesters: ‘Stop focusing on free speech’

Students representing some of the, er, “usual suspects” showed up at a Northwestern University Professor Beth Redbird’s sociology class last week to show their displeasure at the appearance of an ICE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — representative.

The activists, which included those from MEChA de Northwestern, Black Lives Matter NU, the Immigrant Justice Project, the Asian Pacific American Coalition, NU Queer Trans Intersex People of Color and Rainbow Alliance, were miffed because the rep’s very presence “could be dangerous and hurtful for undocumented people.”

A demonstration initially began outside of Redbird’s class — protesters holding up placards and chanting “F*** ICE!” — and eventually the group was told by campus police that if they entered the class they were not permitted to continue as they were.

Think they listened?

Students then walked into the classroom but did not sit down, instead holding up banners and asking Redbird why she invited the ICE representative and if she had considered the possible effect the visit may have on undocumented students or students who know someone who has been detained by the federal agency.

The ICE representative did not remain in the room to endure the activists’ protestations; however, Professor Redbird stayed to answer any protester questions.

Not that the grievance mongers were actually enticed by that, mind you.

“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,” [MEChA’s April] Navarro said. “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.”

And the all-too-typical-these-days kicker (emphasis added): “[…] demonstrating students told The Daily freedom of speech is often used to defend views that can be damaging to some. They said demonstrators were using their own freedom of speech by voicing their concern about the ICE representative.”

How frightening is it that college students do not possess even a fundamental grasp of the First Amendment? It’s even scarier that a student newspaper columnist is similarly clueless:

These students weren’t decrying a violation of an intellectual “safe space.” They believed that ICE represented a threat to their actual safety and that of their families.

But we don’t have to pit students’ concerns against the value of healthy debate. Nor do we have to pit activism against education. In fact, a shift to considering activism as enriching higher education would benefit everyone. …

Redbird said, “I told my students today: knowledge is power.” And she is right. But I’ve learned just as much about how the world works in my extracurricular work in politics as I have in the classroom. Universities should build relationships with activists that ensure activism dovetails with formal education.

What does that look like in practice? Here are two ideas: First, stop focusing on free speech. Instead, when activists organize for a cause, use campus as a microcosm of the real world to teach students how power really works. University decision-making processes are black boxes for many students. So, teach students how decisions are made. Doing so would help them exercise the mental muscles necessary to navigate politics that go unused in the vacuum of academic discussion.

First, Mr. Matt Fulle, referring to a college campus as “a microcosm of the real world” is borderline delusional. If you want to know how power really works, here’s how: Your employer doesn’t care one whit about your “microaggressions” or a supposed “unequal power balance” among the employees. Not to mention, if you disagree with your employer’s rules, chanting “F*** my boss” will simply get you canned in a picosecond.

And then … “stop focusing on free speech”? Do I have to convey just how ludicrous it is for a college newspaper guy to write those words?


Fortunately, our current political climate is the perfect time to make this shift. Imagine if the student protesters of the ’60s and ’70s had been empowered by their institutions instead of being demonized in the news and popular culture. Today, some call us snowflakes. But imagine if our generation — the most highly educated and diverse generation in American history — left its campuses with the practical skills to mobilize and overcome political barriers.

You are snowflakes, Matt. Whereas the protesters of the ’60s and ’70s faced real threats to their physical person (like being drafted into an unpopular war thousands of miles away and legal racial discrimination), your generation whines about the need to “feel safe” from words and the mere presence of someone.

And you’d alter the very essence of the First Amendment to achieve those beloved “safe spaces.”

MORE: Protesters shut down classroom presentation by ICE after administrators invite them in

MORE: Palestinian activist convicted of deadly bombing speaks at Northwestern University

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 18 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.