Students in Pennsylvania protest speaker, engage respectfully during Q&A period

First posted August 22, 2017 8:53am EDT
Last updated June 25, 2019 3:25pm EDT

All Associated Themes:

  • Artistic Expression
  • Hate Speech
  • Identity
  • Press
  • Protest Politics

Flemming Rose’s speech at Franklin & Marshall College attracted student protests outside the venue prior to the event. However, the protesters listened respectfully to Rose’s remarks and challenged his ideas during the Q&A session that followed his presentation.

Key Players

Flemming Rose is a Danish journalist who, while serving as culture editor of the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a derogatory manner on Sept. 5, 2005. Many Muslims were offended by the cartoons and some organized violent attacks on Western institutions. Many died during these confrontations around the world. Rose was criticized for publishing inflammatory cartoons that were likely to draw such a reaction. Ever since, his public appearances often attract criticism and sometimes inspire violence themselves. Consequently, he travels under the protection of personal security guards. In 2016, Rose was disinvited from delivering the University of Cape Town’s annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom because of administrators’ fears that protests would ensue.

Said Bilani is a Muslim student at Franklin & Marshall who organized the protest outside the event. Bilani listened to Rose’s lecture and criticized him during the Q&A session.

Matthew Hoffman, chair of Judaic Studies, invited Rose to speak at Franklin & Marshall. Hoffman is an advocate for academic freedom and had previously invited Steven Salaita, who lost his job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign over tweets that many saw as anti-Semitic. Salaita spoke at Franklin & Marshall about academic freedom issues April 1, 2015.

Daniel R. Porterfield is president of Franklin & Marshall. He believes this event challenged popular narratives about illiberalism at institutions of higher education.

SherAli Tareen is an assistant professor of religious studies at the college. He published a letter in support of the students who protested Rose’s invitation.

Further Details

On the same day that violent protests interrupted a speech by Charles Murray at Middlebury College in Vermont, Rose spoke at Franklin & Marshall in Pennsylvania without inspiring violence or interruption. Students who disapproved of Rose’s publication of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and thought the decision showed disrespect of the Muslim community, protested outside before the event began. However, they joined the audience during Rose’s speech and listened respectfully. They did not disrupt the talk or block anyone’s ability to participate, Inside Higher Ed (IHE) reports.

Professor Hoffman invited Rose after being impressed by his book, The Tyranny of Silence, according to IHE. Hoffman wrote in a letter to the Franklin & Marshall campus newspaper that “even though I didn’t agree with everything Rose said or did, I admired the complexity of the issues Rose tackled in his book and the clarity and insight of his analysis of these issues.” He continued, “For me, this type of intellectual enterprise is part and parcel of pursuing a liberal arts education in which being exposed to views that one doesn’t like is fundamental to cultivating critical thinking.”

Hoffman told IHE that he briefly debated with the roughly 35 students who protested before the event and their conversation remained civil. Students also engaged with Douglas Anthony, chair of international studies at Franklin & Marshall. Anthony urged students to attend the lecture. “I tried to let the students know that they could be part of the discussion,” he told IHE.

Bilani, the student who organized the protests, told IHE he did not support Rose being invited to campus. He equates Rose’s decision to publish the cartoons to someone drawing a swastika in a public place. He and other students who disapproved of Rose’s invitation considered three options: boycott the event, petition to cancel the event, or “attend the talk with an open mind, and then challenge the speaker (if needed),” reports IHE. They chose the third option, and Bilani personally challenged Rose during the Q&A portion of the evening. He said, “Flemming Rose, you have your right to freedom of expression, and nobody will take that away from you. There is a line that gets drawn that separates freedom of speech and hate speech — where you may draw that line may be different than where I draw it,” according to IHE.

Professor Tareen defended students who protested the event in a letter published in a campus newspaper. He likened Hoffman’s call for dispassion to the colonizer telling a native person to “embrace the light of reason.” He continued, “This patronizing gesture is both conceptually clumsy and deeply condescending.” Finally, he said that “while some both within and outside the college may celebrate the Flemming Rose lecture as a shining example of F&M’s commitment to free speech, for many others, including those among the most vulnerable in our community, this event was but a painful reminder of the marginality of their voices.”

Porterfield, the university president, emphasized the importance of free expression on campus and said he was proud of the response to Rose’s lecture. “There have been a number of social critics — in and outside of the academy — who have labeled an entire generation of students as illiberal crybullies,” he told IHE. “If you work at a college campus, you know that these sweeping denunciations are not accurate. Many students in the last two years have protested speech that they felt was offensive to them in a pro-speech manner, but you don’t read a lot of descriptions of the media about pro-speech protest.” 

In February 2017, Franklin & Marshall adopted a statement to support free expression. The policy states, “It is not the proper role of the College to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, uncivil or even deeply offensive. Rather, members of the College community should be encouraged to act according to the principle that the best response to ideas that they find offensive is speech, not censorship. This approach encourages members of the College community to express their views freely, and freely to take issue with views with which they disagree.” This policy is inspired by a similar statement adopted at the University of Chicago.


Flemming Rose engages with a respectful audience

Rose delivered his lecture and responded to questions from students. The event was civil, and protesters made no attempts to interrupt Rose’s remarks. 

The event draws a sharp contrast to violent incidents on other campuses

Rose’s lecture at Franklin & Marshall occurred the same day as Charles Murray’s appearance at Middlebury College. Whereas the Middlebury event descended into violence, at Franklin & Marshall students remained civil and debated academic concepts.

Professors take opposing sides after the event

In their letters to The College Reporter, professors Hoffman and Tareen sharply disagreed about the value of Rose’s lecture.