Local colleges talk policy in light of UConn speaker disruption
Updated 1:31 pm, Thursday, November 30, 2017
STORRS — The aim was civil discourse.
What the University of Connecticut got instead was the “It’s OK to be white” speaker shouted down and then arrested during a chaotic address on Tuesday.
As UConn President Susan Herbst put it in an campuswide statement, “This was a very disappointing evening.”
The incident — which quickly went viral — was the latest in a string of contentious campus speaking engagements that have college officials across the state and the country weighing free speech against cost, safety and student sensibilities.
“It’s a university’s job to provide opportunities for students to hear from people from all walks of life,” said Edina Oestreicher, dean of students at the University of Bridgeport.
That said, anyone who wants to appear at UB has to go through a vetting process, be it a band, a magician or a controversial speaker, according to Oestreicher.
Same goes for Fairfield University and Sacred Heart University, officials there said.
At UConn, conservative commentator Lucian Wintrich was charged with breach of peace Tuesday night. He was released on a $1,000 bond, as was Sean Miller, a UConn student from Glastonbury, who is charged with breaking a window as people left the event. UConn officials are reviewing videos of the event to determine if any additional arrests are warranted.
A national debate
This year at the University of California, Berkeley, conservative commentator Ann Coulter’s planned appearance on campus was canceled because of safety concerns. At Middlebury College in Vermont, students turned their backs on Charles Murray, a writer many accuse of espousing racist ideas. At Auburn University in Alabama, white nationalist leader Richard Spencer spoke after a federal judge ruled the university could not stop him. The list goes on.
“We live in a tense and angry time of deep political division,” Herbst said in her take on what happened at UConn. “Our hope as educators is that creative leadership and intellectual energy can be an antidote to that sickness, especially on university campuses.”
Stephanie Reitz, a UConn spokeswoman, said the policy at the state’s flagship university is to let any student group reserve on-campus space for a speaker or program as long as university rules are followed.
“Free speech, like academic freedom, is one of the university’s bedrock principles,” Reitz said.
Wintrich, a White House correspondent for the right-wing Gateway Pundit website, was hosted by UConn College Republicans, a student organization. Representatives of the group did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Reitz said the UConn event did not involve tuition money, and she did not have figures on what security cost.
Dimitrius Raphael, a senior biology major at UConn who went to hear Wintrich at the Andre Schenker Lecture Hall on campus, said officials definitely seemed to “up the security,” with officers at each door in a lecture hall filled to capacity.
Wintrich was to give a speech and then answer questions. Instead, he was booed from the get-go and peppered with chants of “Go home, Nazi.”
At one point, when a woman ran up and grabbed papers from his lectern, Wintrich chased her up into the audience, and according to police reports “grabbed her, pulling her back in a violent manner.”
Wintrich was taken into UConn police custody shortly before 9 p.m. No injuries were reported.
He later tweeted: “It’s really unfortunate that some of the kids at @UConn felt the need to be violent and disruptive during a speech that focused on how the leftist media is turning Americans against each other. Tonight proved my point.”
Raphael said it seemed unreal, “just to witness an incident of this sort with my own eyes.”
Anthony D’Andrea, a UConn freshman from Norwalk, wasn’t there, but said he doesn’t think UConn should stop welcoming controversial speakers.
“I think it’s worth hearing everyone’s opinion,” said D’Andrea. “Whoever the university invites, I am willing to hear them out.”
Herbst said the night was a learning experience.
“Something similar will arise here again at some point in the near future,” she said. “We will need to learn from this experience and rise to that occasion. Thoughtful civil discourse should be a hallmark of democratic societies and American universities, and this evening fell well short of that.”
On other campuses in the area, the tightrope between free speech and safety is also traversed when it comes to controversial speakers.
At Yale University, the campus is open to any speaker whom students or members of the faculty have invited and for whom official arrangements to speak have been made with the university, spokesman Tom Conroy said, referencing the Ivy League university’s website.
Yale has rules against disrupting speech, lectures or public events.
At Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, the student handbook allows student groups to invite speakers as long as there is an equal opportunity for opposing views.
“The reality of that policy is that we take our role as guardians of academic freedom very seriously,” Deborah Noack, a Sacred Heart spokeswoman, said. “Our goal is to present different opinions and to expose our students to the world around us, even if these windows sometimes open on individuals who are contro versial.”
At Fairfield University, Jenn Anderson, vice president of marketing and communications, said the campus is committed to the Jesuit culture that celebrates diversity, open dialogue, the free exchange of ideas and the pursuit of truth.
“The university sponsors many different lectures and events, which include controversial speakers,” she said. Speakers who would incite violence, she added, would not be welcome on campus.