By Sophie Foster
On Thursday, Sept. 7, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and legal scholar Dr. Robert George came to speak to the Wasington College community in Hynson Lounge.
Also on Thursday, Sept. 7, dozens of protestors gathered on the Cater Walk, and, later, inside Hynson Lounge to protest his presence on campus when calls for the event to be canceled were shot down by the College’s administration.
Dr. George, perhaps most well-known for his anti-abortion advocacy and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric on social media and in political and educational forums, was invited to the campus to speak on the subject of free speech. It is this excuse that motivated the College’s refusal to cancel the talk.
According to a Sept. 6 campus-wide email from the President of the College Dr. Mike Sosulski, “[c]hallenges concerning free expression are not new to college campuses and they raise complicated questions, especially for a campus that values diversity, equity, and inclusion like ours.”
Administration was confident invoking freedom of expression in response to student anger at the implications of this talk, but visibly demonstrated no guilt at diminishing students’ free expression on their own part as the College insisted on downplaying the issue.
The talk was cut short due to the demonstration. President Sosulski then announced on Friday, Sept. 8 that “[t]he students who disrupted the event failed to live up to [the College’s] values” and “will be held accountable for their actions.”
According to one protestor, though, the College is blatantly overlooking broader sociopolitical issues, particularly when referring to trans issues.
“There’s a lot of skeptics,” the protestor said. “Our opponents will think less of us and be proven right. They believe our very existence is illegitimate, therefore everything we do is illegitimate, so we might as well fight.”
The protestor also said that posters displayed around campus advocating for the LGBTQ+ community were promptly removed by administrators. Subsequently, notices were posted that signs were not allowed to be posted on doors or walls at all.
“It’s very curious how there were [many] posters up [in those places previously], and as soon as [advocacy] posters went up, mysteriously, all of the posters are gone…the pattern here seems to indicate to me that the posters were not the issue. [They] just didn’t like what the posters said.”
It is critical to be aware of the College’s hypocritical choice to penalize students for employing the very free speech this talk was theoretically supposed to be structured to encourage. However, it is even more critical to acknowledge the underlining implications that come with the fact that there was no indication of intent to similarly penalize those who harassed LGBTQ+ students and protestors as a result of the talk and its coinciding events.
As demonstrators held signs and peacefully argued for the event to be brought to a stop, attendees met them with verbal harassment. Protestors were directed to return to kindergarten and referred to as the “tyranny of the minority.” One was called an “ugly bitch.” Meanwhile, other students took to platforms like Yik Yak to anonymously espouse indefensible transphobic rhetoric.
Where are the Honor Code violations for this verbal abuse while protestors were much gentler with their own criticisms? Doling out punishment to students who felt their identities were being threatened is irresponsible. Overlooking comparable punishment for those who felt enabled by Dr. George’s presence to confidently toss around harmful language toward some of our most vulnerable populations is inexcusable.
The defense handed out across campus is that this talk was not rooted in an agenda to debate LGBTQ+ identities or abortion rights; rather, it was, according to its promotional materials, devoted to instigating dialogue about free speech. This is a shameful misunderstanding of what it means to invite a speaker to a college campus at all.
The message of the talk itself is only part of the equation. To invite someone to speak as an authority on any subject in any capacity is to imply endorsement of their authority. That is the nature of an educational institution. The agenda of the talk does not matter. Dr. George’s presence itself was an agenda.
The unfortunate reality is that this is a disappointing display of respectability politics by the WC administration. It is not possible to debate the value of both sides of an argument when one side advocates for the total dismissal of the existence of those on the other.
In an era without the backbone of Roe v. Wade, there are only so many ways to twist the implications of inviting a man who, according to his work in “The Wrong of Abortion,” considers abortion “feticide” and “objectively immoral.” There are only so many ways one can interpret his perspective, according to GLAAD, that gay relationships are “beneath the dignity of human beings as free and rational creatures.”
According to the College’s own mission statement, its enduring values include “moral courage.” Where exactly, then, is the morality in hosting a man who, according to his own Twitter, considers transgender identities “absurd” and “superstitious?” Where is the courage in silencing the students disquieted by those beliefs?
The too-familiar, borderline cliché comparisons write themselves. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sense of disturbance regarding “the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice” comes to mind.
It makes sense, ultimately, that President Sosulski and, resultantly, the College, took this stance. Identities are always just politics to those whose identities are rarely politicized.
Photo caption: Signs urging students to join Sept. 7’s protest were posted around campus on Sept. 6.
Photo by Sophie Foster