ACLU speaker disrupted during speech at College of William & Mary
First posted February 13, 2018 8:14pm EST
Last updated June 27, 2019 11:09pm EDT
All Associated Themes:
- Heckler’s Veto
- Professional Consequences
- Protest Politics
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia, was invited by the College of William & Mary’s student organization Alma Mater Productions (AMP) for a discussion titled “Students and the First Amendment.” However, the event did not proceed as planned. It was interrupted by William & Mary’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) chapter about five minutes after Gastañaga’s entrance. She was not able to speak substantively, nor to talk with students individually or answer their questions after the event concluded prematurely.
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, an alumna of William & Mary, is executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. In August 2017, the state ACLU sued the city of Charlottesville on behalf of Jason Kessler, an “alt-right” activist, who was denied the use of Emancipation Park on Aug. 12 for an approved demonstration. Gastañaga commented on the lawsuit, saying, “The ACLU of Virginia stands for the right to free expression for all, not just those whose opinions are in the mainstream or with whom the government agrees.”
Williamsburg Black Lives Matter has existed since 2014. The Flat Hat, William & Mary’s student newspaper, quoted BLM activist Beth Haw as saying, “We try to engage [people] in conversation about why black lives matter.” Information on the college chapter’s current leadership is not publicly available, and the group is not a recognized student organization on William & Mary’s campus, according to the official student organization directory, but instead works alongside the Williamsburg community’s BLM group.
The AMP is the “primary campus-wide programming body at the College of William & Mary,” according to the college’s website. It falls under the Office of Student Leadership Development. AMP’s mission statement says that its goal is “to provide diverse, high-quality entertainment in a safe, inclusive environment at a low cost to the college community.”
As Gastañaga began to speak, BLM protesters occupied the stage while chanting and holding signs. According to Reason.com, they shouted, “ACLU, you protect Hitler, too” and “the oppressed are not impressed,” among other things. They were angry because the ACLU had declared its intent to protect the Free Speech rights of Ku Klux Klan members and white nationalists earlier that year, and again after the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 — just a month before Gastañaga’s planned speech at William & Mary. At the march in Charlottesville, hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, white supremacists, and others gathered to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park, previously known as Lee Park. Counterprotesters were present as well, and the conflict ultimately led to the death of a counterprotester, Heather Heyer, and the injury of some 30 others.
At one point during the William & Mary event, an organizer gave a microphone to the protesters so they could read their prepared statement aloud. It addressed the BLM chapter’s concerns regarding when “free speech of the oppressed” would be protected. The protesters then continued chanting, until the hosts eventually decided to cancel the remainder of the discussion. Following the event, student attendees attempted to ask Gastañaga questions individually, but the protesters followed, encircling them and chanting, until the students left with their questions unanswered.
Gastañaga initially attempted to incorporate the protesters into the discussion, saying, “Good, I like this. … I’m going to talk to you about knowing your rights, and protests and demonstrations, which this illustrates very well. Then I’m going to respond to questions from the moderators, and then questions from the audience.” But the protesters continued to chant, and ultimately, the discussion was not able to proceed.
AMP Director Miguel Dayan said the student group, which sponsored the visit by Gastañaga, was “proud of be a part of a politically active community that voices their concerns and fights for their rights” but wished there had been a multilateral dialogue at this event.
Gastañaga leaves campus safely; event not rescheduled
Following the event, Gastañaga left campus safely and no arrests or violence of any kind were reported. The discussion had been organized five months in advance, and as of Feb. 12, 2018, there were no plans to reschedule it.
William & Mary President Taylor Reveley issued a statement following the aborted event, writing, “Silencing certain voices in order to advance the cause of others is not acceptable in our community. … William & Mary must be a campus that welcomes difficult conversations, honest debate and civil dialogue.”