Professor William Jacobson teaches law at Cornell University and is also the creator of the excellent blog, Legal Insurrection. Recently Prof. Jacobson was invited to speak at Vassar College on the topic of hate speech and free speech. Jacobson had spoken at Vassar before in 2014 without incident and so he was unprepared for what happened next. As he writes in an op-ed at USAToday, he became the victim of a smear campaign designed to cancel his appearance at the school.
A student activist group at Vassar, with the help of Vassar student government, spread false claims to the entire student body that event information was shared by me “on multiple white nationalist websites,” that there was “active encouragement for other white nationalists to come to the event,” and that there was a need to “protect the people that this speaker has targeted in the past.” None of this was true.
Two forums were held attended by over 200 students, faculty and staff, for the purpose of planning how to prevent ME from harming students. The claim reportedly was made at that forum that the “speaker himself is trying to incite violence.” That was a lie without any factual basis.
The student activists put together a research team to pour though my thousands of blog posts in order to falsely portray me as the equivalent of a Richard Spencer-type character. Being mainstream right-of-center became the equivalent of being a neo-Nazi or White Supremacist.
So complete was the demonization that one event poster was defaced by putting horns on my head.
Stirred up by all of this nonsense, the Vassar Student Association asked the college’s president to rescind Jacobson’s invitation. Jacobson quoted a portion of the request on his blog last month:
We strongly urge you, on account of students undergoing serious and real pain, to take our words and ideas seriously, and work towards breaching the contract, ultimately preventing him from coming to campus on Wednesday…
We urge you to think critically about these things. Rather than just engaging the abstract, we urge you to understand how these ideas have physical implications for the safety and well-being of real students on this campus . Ideas are not merely esoteric concepts; they have historically (and presently) been used to silence and justify extreme violence. William Jacobson’s rhetoric and worldview is an illustrative example of where we locate this violence; this is not “free speech.” This is sanctioned violence hiding behind the veneer of liberalism.
All of this talk about student pain is par for the course at these far-left campus protests. In reality, it just means far-left students are using their own emotional fragility as leverage to dominate their political opponents. As one protester who interrupted a College Republican meeting at UC Santa Cruz said recently, “your existence is a disturbance.”
Speaking of fragility, another group at Vassar, Healing to Action, set up a plan for the day Jacobson was scheduled to speak. It recommended that students attending the lecture wear black as a show of solidarity and also suggested they do their best to avoid being baited because that would make them look like “fragile liberals.” The same announcement also offered some counter-programming: “Join us for food & button-making, and each other’s company.” The announcement added, “Library will provide coloring books, zine kits, markers, construction paper etc.” Nothing says ‘I’m not a fragile liberal’ like retreating to a safe space with coloring books.
Eventually, Jacobson did speak and he says the event itself was “as wonderful as the demonization campaign was awful.” The room was full (about 200 students) with some overflow outside and students listened to his speech and engaged in a Q&A that lasted an hour afterward. But Jacobson writes that, despite this positive outcome, the damage had already been done:
Why would any right-of-center student, faculty member or guest speaker want to endure what I had to go through? For that matter, why would any liberal defender of free speech want to undergo such a smear campaign?
And isn’t that the point? While I was permitted to speak, the message was sent that support for the 1st Amendment and freedom of speech is not welcome. To get to speak on these sensitive yet critical topics means you have to run the gauntlet of anti-free speech progressives.
Here’s Jacobson’s speech at Vassar. As you can see, he’s not a hateful extremist and no one was targeted, threatened or made unsafe by his discussion of hate speech and free speech: