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Students form ‘safety teams’ ahead of Cornell law prof’s free speech talk

UPDATED

‘We thought this was actually going to be another Charlottesville’

Students on Cornell’s campus formed “safety teams” ahead of a law professor’s recent talk on free speech there, with some activists even imploring the school’s administration to cancel the event.

The speech, given by Cornell law professor William Jacobson, focused on “free speech on college campuses,” according to The Cornell Daily Sun. Cornell’s chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union, hosted the event.

The speech was originally titled “Hate Speech’ is Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville,” according to The Sun; the purpose of the talk, the paper reported, was to “detail the tension on college campuses between ‘the desire for freedom of speech to promote an open intellectual environment, and speech that may offend some people or groups.'”

Later the event’s title was changed to “An Examination of Hate Speech and Free Speech on College Campuses.”

According to The Sun: 

Mounting tensions from this flip-flopping title and fear of a surge of white nationalism in Poughkeepsie threw the student body into disarray, according to Kimmie Nguyen, a junior at Vassar.

Pietro Geraci, Vassar senior and president of VCLU, the student group that hosted the lecture, explained that this title change came from a discrepancy between the name given to the organization that approved and provided funds for the event, the Vassar Student Association, and the title the group used for advertising.

Although Jacobson said that he thought the title-change was a “non-issue,” Nguyen, who was not on campus when the event happened, thought the original title is what ignited students.

This original inclusion of Charlottesville in the title as well as the advertising leading up to the lecture spurred much of the controversy, Nguyen said in a message.

In fact, Nguyen said that she did not think the content of the lecture itself outraged students, but rather “there were a lot of extra underlying issues that acted as catalysts to the explosion of this event.”

“I think the event was purposefully misadvertised to the student body,” she said. “Which in turn created a tense campus environment because we thought this was actually going to be another Charlottesville.”

A campus activist group known as “Healing 2 Action” reportedly “set up a ‘safe room’ in the same building as the lecture took place and organized ‘safety teams,’ for student support Au said. Other groups, including the Vassar Jewish Union and the Religious & Spiritual Life Office, planned gatherings for the night of the lecture to provide food and prayer,” according to The Sun.

The day after the speech, The Sun reports, “posters with the faces of VCLU members appeared on campus, saying that the organization ‘loves hate speech.'” These posters also encouraged students to approach members of  “’to tell them what you think.'” The posters triggered an investigation by campus security. “We are taking this matter very seriously,” said a campus spokeswoman.

UPDATED: Professor Jacobson has published a post at Legal Insurrection in which he vigorously disputes the accusations leveled at him by campus activists:

Hundreds of students, faculty and staff were whipped into a frenzy by factually false accusations against me and regarding my appearance. There were many false accusations. In this post, I’ll address just one aspect, that I supposedly posed a threat to campus safety.

The campus was misled into thinking that I, and supposed “neo-Nazis and white supremacists” who were likely to attend with me, were going to target non-white, LGBT and Jewish students. It was a fabrication.

Two campus forums attended by hundreds of people were held by a student group called Healing 2 Action to prepare how to protect the campus from the supposed threat I posed. Among other statements reportedly made at the meeting was the false claim that the “speaker himself is trying to incite violence….” That was a lie without any factual basis…

Read the Cornell Sun report here, and Professor Jacobson’s post here.

MORE: Cornell may crack down on free speech in wake of racial unrest

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