Student protesters in California block conservative speaker from entering building

First posted August 22, 2017 4:48pm EDT
Last updated June 20, 2020 5:55pm EDT

All Associated Themes:

  • Hate Speech
  • Heckler’s Veto
  • Identity
  • Professional Consequences
  • Protest Politics
  • Social Media

Student protesters prevented Heather Mac Donald from entering a building on Claremont McKenna College’s campus in Claremont, California, where she was scheduled to speak in April 2017. She delivered her speech via livestream, although her remarks were cut short because of actions by protesters outside the building. The day before, she had delivered a speech at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). 

Key Players

Heather Mac Donald is a conservative author and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. In 2016, she authored The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe. Mac Donald is critical of the Black Lives Matter movement and has written about “phantom police racism.”

Hiram Chodosh, president of Claremont McKenna College, issued a statement following the event in which he criticized the student protesters and noted that Mac Donald reached a larger audience through the livestream than she would have if the event had taken place in the original venue. 

Peter Uvin, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Claremont McKenna, was critical of student protesters in the wake of the event. He admitted that the college was not prepared for the scale of the protest. In an interview with a campus newspaper, he said, “I understand [students’] anger and pain in many ways, but as I wrote in my email, this is not the way to go about it. Not in general, and even less so at a college.”

Further Details

Student protesters at Claremont McKenna created a blockade that prevented potential attendees from entering an event featuring Mac Donald. The protesters were angered by Mac Donald’s criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement and her dismissal of racism within law enforcement institutions. Although preventing access to a building violates the school code, administrators decided it would be dangerous to arrest the roughly 250 individuals who had gathered to protest, reports Inside Higher Ed. Instead, Mac Donald moved to a private room and her remarks were livestreamed.

Organizers of the protest accused Mac Donald of “neglecting the state sponsored genocide committed against black people” and said she represented “white supremacist and fascist ideologies,” reports The Washington Post. A Facebook event promoting the protest featured a picture of Mac Donald with photoshopped devil horns. At the protest, students shouted, “Shut it down,” “Black lives matter,” and “From Oakland to Greece, fuck the police.” The protest organizers released a statement in which they claimed that “Mac Donald openly advocates and encourages mass incarceration of black and brown folks in the U.S. by explicitly stating racist constructions of ‘black crime.’ As the Amerikkkan state monopolizes violence, the judicial system is a branch of many institutions that protect the interests of rich white supremacists.” On the subject of Free Speech, the organizers said, “The way fascism is masked as ‘free speech’ is not any ‘normal’ exercise of constitutional power. White supremacists such as Heather Mac Donald claim protection from free speech as an exercise of constitutional rights forgetting that the Constitution was created by slave owners.”

Chodosh, university president, released a statement after the event in which he took responsibility for the decision to move the event to a remote location and not take action against those blocking access to a building. He also noted that livestreaming the event actually delivered Mac Donald a larger audience. He opposed the student actions, saying, “the breach of our freedoms to listen to views that challenge us and to engage in dialogue about matters of controversy is a serious, ongoing concern we must address effectively. Accordingly, we will be developing new strategies for how best to protect open, safe access to our events.”

In her remarks delivered via livestream, Mac Donald thanked college administrators for maintaining her invitation. She also questioned why Black Lives Matter supporters “did not seem to share her concern about young black children killed by gang members and other criminals,” reports Inside Higher Ed. Students protesting outside banged on the windows, prompting Mac Donald to end her remarks and exit through a side door.

Mac Donald has argued that faculty members must do more to protect the freedoms of campus speakers. “I think this should be a wake-up call to the faculty across the country,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “They have been given the extraordinary privilege of tenure to protect their own freedom of speech and thought,” she said. But when the Free Speech of campus visitors is challenged, “the faculty are by in large missing in action,” she said. Finally, she called for increased participation from campus police officers, saying, “Campus police are very reluctant to arrest the little darlings, so if that’s the case, they have to have police using commanding presence to make such blocking impossible.”

Claremont McKenna’s administration punished seven students for their involvement in the blockade that impeded access to Mac Donald’s event. Three students were suspended for a year, two were suspended for a semester, and another two were placed on “conduct probation,” Inside Higher Ed reports. The administration released a statement calling on students to “master the skills of respectful dialogue across all barriers.” It continued, “Our community must protect the right to learn from others, especially those with whom we strongly disagree.” Mac Donald told Inside Higher Ed that she is “glad some students were being held responsible,” although she noted that many of those who protested will not receive any punishment. The administration estimates that approximately 170 people participated in the protest, according to its statement. Nana Gyamfi, an attorney who works with an advocacy group called Justice Warriors for Black Lives, has advised the students who were punished, according to Inside Higher Ed. Gyamfi believes that these punishments were issued “to intimidate and to bully” students.

The day before the confrontation at Claremont McKenna, Mac Donald spoke at UCLA at the invitation of the school’s College Republicans chapter. Once she finished her speech, which lasted approximately 30 minutes, a group of protesters began chanting, “Black lives, they matter here.” The protesters took the stage for several minutes, but eventually they stopped chanting and Mac Donald began to answer audience questions. At one point, she engaged in a contentious back-and-forth with a Black woman who asked her if she cares about Black victims of police violence. Mac Donald’s response (“Black lives matter to me enormously” and “There is no government agency more dedicated to the proposition that Black lives matter than the police”) and her counter-question (“Do Black children that are killed by other Blacks matter to you?”) drew shouts from the crowd. She answered questions for about 25 minutes amid sporadic outbursts from her audience. 


Mac Donald’s audience grows due to the livestream

Over 1,000 people have viewed a video of the remarks Mac Donald delivered via livestream from Claremont McKenna. This is a far larger audience than Mac Donald would have addressed in the original venue. Chodosh pointed to this fact in questioning the tactics of the protesters. 

School administrators do not enforce campus rules during protest but later punish some protesters

Because of safety concerns, Claremont McKenna administrators did not enforce campus rules that prohibit blocking access to a building. Three months after the incident, they announced that seven students had been punished, five of whom received suspensions.