Suspensions for College Students Who Thwarted Free Speech

Claremont McKenna punished multiple campus activists who shut down an event featuring a pro-police speaker—but were those punishments justified?


Claremont McKenna, the small, Southern California liberal-arts college, has punished seven students for their part in trying to shut down a speaking event last spring.

The undergraduates targeted Heather Mac Donald, a Manhattan Institute scholar who often focuses on law enforcement. She is most controversial for arguing that aggressive policing tactics pioneered by the NYPD in the 1990s saved thousands of black lives by reducing crime––and that  protest movements like Black Lives Matter are part of a “war on cops” that makes everyone, especially cops and black men, less safe.

On April 6, roughly 170 people from the Claremont Colleges and beyond organized and executed a blockade of the venue where she was to speak. Some erroneously asserted that she is a white supremacist who disputes “the right of Black people to exist.”

“They breached the perimeter safety and security fence and campus safety line, and established human barriers to entrances and exits,” according to a statement released by administrators. “These actions deprived many of the opportunity to gather, hear the speaker, and engage with questions and comments.”

Among those found guilty of policy violations by a panel made up of a student, a staff member, and a faculty member, three students received one-year suspensions; two received one-semester suspensions; and two were put on conduct probation.

Their identities were not released.

The disciplinary measures are as harsh as any I can recall being levied against student activists in the spate of campus protests that began in October 2015 at the University of Missouri. That is sure to please one faction at Claremont McKenna, an institution where many alumni, trustees, and faculty members were perturbed to see free speech attacked by activists at their historically conservative institution––and convinced that a punitive response was needed to assure that going forward, students will be able to host controversial speakers without fear of getting shut down.

The administration’s statement addressed those concerns:

Our Athenaeum must continue to invite the broadest array of speakers on the most pressing issues of the day. Our faculty must help us understand how to mitigate the forces that divide our society. Our students must master the skills of respectful dialogue across all barriers. Our community must protect the right to learn from others, especially those with whom we strongly disagree. And Claremont McKenna College must take every step necessary to uphold these vital commitments.

If any sizable faction of students are upset by the disciplinary measures, their reaction is likely to be tempered by the fact that they won’t return to campus until the fall semester begins. In their absence, a Los Angeles civil rights lawyer, Nana Gyamfi, has emerged as the leading critic of the disciplinary measures taken against the students. She was kind enough to grant me a half hour interview on her birthday.

In her telling, Claremont McKenna first erred in extending an invitation to someone like Mac Donald, because she is not merely conservative in her views––her rhetoric is dangerous. This is so, the civil rights lawyer argued, in part because of the way that Mac Donald vilifies participants in the Black Lives Matter movement, thereby putting them at greater risk of being harmed by critics agitated into violence. There is an element of karmic symmetry to the accusation, as Mac Donald insists cops are at greater risk of harm by critics agitated by Black Lives Matter.

Gyamfi went on to argue that students of color feel unsafe at the prospect of a Mac Donald speech on their campus––and that they are, in fact, justified in that feeling. At first, I thought that she was using the characterization “unsafe” in the fashion of campus progressives who invoke the term even absent any claim of actual physical threat.

In fact, she was worried about real violence. She noted that in 2015 an anonymous figure posted a death threat against Claremont’s students of color in an online forum. She spoke in general of speakers who rile up campuses, leaving members of marginalized groups feeling that, “Damn, after this person spoke I feel physically in danger, I'm going to go back to these dorms and people are going to physically assault me.” And she asserted that students in that situation have a duty to act in self-defense.

Thus the attempted shutdown in Claremont.

“The students that engaged in this did so because they have an understanding of something we're all coming to: that we keep us safe, that we cannot depend even on the institutions we pay, whether the police or our universities, to keep us safe,” she said. “So we have to put our bodies on the line to be able to be safe. It doesn't make sense for you to be pursuing a degree somewhere and for someone to put a bullet in your head.”

The notion that Mac Donald would plausibly incite students at Claremont to physically assault black classmates in the dorms after her speech struck me as incorrect and unfair––Mac Donald has been speaking publicly at college campuses and beyond for decades; her frequent speeches have never incited any audience member to violence; and nothing I’ve ever known her to say, in years of listening critically to her words and reading her critics, has ever come close to even attempting incitement.

(For what it’s worth, multiple students of color I spoke to at the Claremont Colleges agreed that Mac Donald presented no threat and disagreed with the attempt to shut down her speech; be wary of any source that treats students of color anywhere as a monolith.)

I asked if anything in the remarks that Mac Donald ultimately delivered, in a live stream at Claremont McKenna, struck Gyamfi as something that could incite violence. “I have no idea,” she said. “If someone writes books and articles that I feel positions Black Lives Matter protesters as terrorists, and that positions extrajudicial killings of black people as acceptable … I'm not going to wait until she says kill the n-words or who cares if n-words die, I'm not going to wait for the outrageous thing to come from her mouth when I know where this could possibly go.”

If any student protesters were earnestly fearful that Mac Donald’s speech would trigger an assault on them, or would include a racial-epithet-laden tirade about killing black people, they would have been well-served by a trusted figure with an accurate understanding of Mac Donald’s views to alleviate their fears with the truth.

I tend to agree with Gyamfi that the punishments were overly harsh.

For me, that’s partly because Claremont McKenna and other institutions sent students lots of unfortunate signals that they could protest without consequence, and partly because semester rather than year-long suspensions, paired with a book report on John Stuart Mill, Henry Louis Gates, and Jonathan Rauch, seem sufficient to send the needed message: attempts to shut down speech will no longer be tolerated.

To Gyamfi, only educational discipline was appropriate, in part because “this was a non-violent protest. They didn't punch anybody out. It was not destructive. They didn't turn over cars or burn anything down. And the way the university responded to the protest clearly is intended to intimidate, to bully, to chill speech, to make people feel that anyone who even thinks about pushing back against one of these alt-wrong people is going to be slammed. You're requiring people to just take it, to hear things that are harmful to hear, to experience things that are harmful to experience, and to hear that pressure makes the diamond and friction makes the pearl. We already understand that no, it doesn't work that way, it shouldn't work that way in an educational institution, and you certainly shouldn't discipline students who are making an attempt to exercise free speech. And that is what they were doing.”

That the punishment violates the free speech of the protesters, and is likely to chill speech, is a critique I encountered on Facebook as well, though the college did not punish students who protested Heather Mac Donald but did not block the event space.

I asked Gyamfi if she saw a distinction. What those insisting on a punishment worry about, I observed, is that permitting students to physically shut down any event featuring a speaker they don’t like will render colleges helpless to function in the face of any dissenters. Should the alt-right be allowed to blockade Deray Mckesson speeches with impunity? At first, she changed the hypothetical, saying she would not object if Jewish students attempted to shut down a speech by an anti-Semitic Holocaust denier. That too would fall under her notion of self-defense against dangerous speech.

But what about protesters shutting down a speaker whose ideas you regard as unobjectionable, I pressed. Would that be legitimate because “peaceful protest” should never be punished? Or is it okay to punish protesters who stop others from speaking or listening? “If they're protesting it's okay,” she argued. “I don't think it's okay if you're being an ass and not engaging in protest. Then you're just being an ass. But I think if they're actually engaging in protest, then I'm not happy about it, but it is what it is.”

It shouldn’t be punished.

I respect the consistency of her view, and the empathy that it extends to people who believe themselves to be standing up for what is right. But I don’t want to live in a society where it prevails. Think what it would mean, campus progressives, if people could block others from speaking, or assembling, then escape punishment so long as their protest was in earnest. Alt-right bigots could surround mosques to prevent Muslims from attending services. The right to abortion would be meaningless as those who regard  even first trimester procedures as murder formed human barriers around rural clinics. The Westboro Baptist Church could decide that rather than just protest the funerals of AIDS victims, it would physically prevent families from gathering for the eulogy.

That dysfunctional arrangement could hardly stay nonviolent for long. Folks would still want to have political gatherings. Thus the rise of campaign rallies where protesters would try to prevent any assembling, and counter-protesters would be on hand to counter, with victory that day going to whoever happens to push harder in their blockade.

The red rover champions of 1980s elementary schools would thrive. But the arrangement would be a catastrophe for marginalized people––just as failing to protect freedom of speech or freedom of association on college campuses would be a catastrophe for marginalized students.

The perfect punishment is a difficult thing to determine. But in my estimation, Claremont McKenna was correct to impose some punishment on student protesters who denied others the ability to speak and listen. While many forms of protest should always be permitted on college campuses, all students will ultimately benefit if future shut-down attempts are averted.

Dissents are welcome at