When a controversial speaker came to campus earlier this semester, many students called for the University to stop the event. But what can the school actually do? We untangle some questions about ASU and freedom of speech in this special episode of "State Press Play."
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KIRSTEN DORMAN: Please note: This episode contains strong language and discussion of sensitive subject matter. Listener discretion is advised.
(CHANTS FROM THE PROTEST, “Fuck off, Nazi scum!”)
DORMAN: Friday, September second. Outside Neeb Hall, one of Arizona State University’s biggest lecture halls. The sun is slowly starting to go down, and it looks like it might rain. But there are people gathering outside Neeb, some lining up to receive yellow wristbands and be let inside.
On August 22, College Republicans United announced their plan to host Jared Taylor for a speaking event on campus.
CRU is a student organization at ASU. On their Sun Devil Sync page, they describe the organization’s goals as striving “to develop political skills and leadership among Republican students as preparation for future public service by them to promote paleoconservative ideals and to better the community.”
CRU’s August 22 tweet announcing that Taylor would speak on campus included a link to purchase tickets. The event title: “If We Do Nothing: A Defense of White Identity Politics.”
College Republicans at ASU, a different but similarly named student organization, released a written statement condemning the event. In it, they referred to CRU as a “bigoted, illegitmate splinter group.” They wrote that CRU hosting Taylor was “abandoning their obligations as Republicans and making bedfellows of racists.”
Lee Bebout is an English professor at ASU with expertise in critical race theory.
BEBOUT: Jared Taylor is really well known. He’s somebody that I have read before, somebody that I’ve talked about in my research before.
DORMAN: Bebout was outside Neeb Hall for a couple of hours on September 2.
BEBOUT: I don’t necessarily want to engage in overt protest, as a faculty member. But I teach a class about white supremacy. Shocking: I’m against it.
DORMAN: Instead, Bebout handed out flyers for the class he teaches. In the spring 2023 semester, he’ll teach a version of the class: English 332, “Whiteness.” He says his intention was not so much to advertise the class, as it was …
BEBOUT: – a way of saying, “Hey, there are other perspectives out here.” …And so I went, and Ipassed out flyers for the class, you know, and when people wanted to talk I talked.
DORMAN: Many refer to Taylor as a white supremacist. Bebout says that Taylor may be unlikely to self-identify as one, though.
BEBOUT: It's a kind of rhetorical maneuver that these folks are engaging in to disavow white supremacy. Nobody acknowledges that they're a Nazi. Nobody wants to say that they're a white supremacist.
DORMAN: But Bebout says that the way white supremacy shows up in society doesn’t always look like what the average American might picture.
BEBOUT: It is a, a mode of being, a philosophical perspective. It's a political ideology that is invested in whiteness as a racial identity, and whiteness is a racial identity that is somehow above and better than other communities. And Jared Taylor fits that bill. That is what he believes. He might not glom on to the identity of white supremacist. But you know what? White supremacists don't glom onto that identity, either.
DORMAN: A small crowd of people was also there to counterprotest. One man who identified himself as “Ken C” and another who chose not to identify himself had this to say about why they were there:
“KEN C”: We’re not here, like – we don’t even know who the speaker is, but we just want people to be able to voice whatever their opinions are.
DORMAN: So why was it important to you to come out if you didn’t know who the speaker was?
“KEN C”: Because I saw these guys were protesting, so anything that they’re against, that’s (inaudible)
COUNTER-PROTESTOR: Dressed in all black, you know, that means, like, burning shit, looting –
“KEN C”: –Fascists are against it, it’s probably good to stand for.
DORMAN: Before the start of the event, those who purchased tickets lined up. One by one, security allowed them behind the metal barricades that stood between Neeb Hall and everyone else.
Once they had all disappeared inside, it was just protestors, counter-protesters, security, and those of us there to cover the event.
“ISAAC” (via megaphone): Personally, as a Black person, whose family is only here due to slavery, I find that ASU supporting this white supremacist completely violent, and intolerable.
(CHEERING FROM THE CROWD)
DORMAN: The student whose words you just heard has been featured in video coverage of the event posted on several social media platforms.
“ISAAC” (via megaphone): We must organize, and we must violently dismantle white supremacy by any means necessary.
(CHEERING FROM THE CROWD)
DORMAN: When we speak, he asks that we call him “Isaac.” He tells me that he does not want to be identified for fear of retaliation for his words, but still feels they were important enough to grab the megaphone.
“ISAAC”: …It’s something that honestly needs to be said, as you saw by the crowd reaction. Everyone agreed with me and it is this genuine thirst for genuine change in this country.
DORMAN: Speaking of the crowd: One soon-to-be transfer student, Garrett Crix, says that if Taylor was just another conservative, he wouldn’t have shown up to protest.
CRIX: This guy is another level of fascist, okay, another level of, I mean – what he describes is a desire for, for pure ethnostates. This is not just some guy to the right.
DORMAN: Alara Mardinly is a current ASU student. She says counter protestors’ presence on campus made things feel unsafe and contradicted the space’s educational purpose.
ALARA MARDINLY: I don’t want fucking racists to have a platform to express themselves in a place where there are so many students of color.
DORMAN: Logan O’Neill, also an ASU student, referenced the University’s charter:
LOGAN O’NEILL: For a college that prides itself on being inclusive and, like – yeah, on diversity and defining themselves by who they include rather than who they exclude, having somebody that’s literally talking about the protection of white – like, white culture is, like, very ironic.
DORMAN: Kensie Smull is working on her master’s in forensic psychology at ASU. She says it wasn’t just that Taylor was allowed on campus. But that the university allowed CRU to host the talk inside Neeb Hall.
SMULL: It is one thing if we had him on the Free Speech Lawn in front of Hayden, we can’t control who goes there. That’s Free Speech Lawn. But it is another thing to let him into our doors.
DORMAN: ASU released a statement in response to calls from student organizations, students, and community members for it to cancel the event.
It read, in part: “ASU is a public educational institution that is committed to free, robust and uninhibited sharing of ideas among all members of the University’s community.”
Whatever the University’s stance on free speech, its actions in allowing Taylor to speak inside a university building speak louder than its words according to ASU student Khayman Cunningham.
CUNNINGHAM: My main issue with Jared Taylor speaking at ASU is that it seems that the school is supporting him speaking as they’re hosting it in their auditorium. While I do understand it’s a student-organized event, I don’t think it would have been wrong if ASU said, “They can have their event. The club can exist. But please do it off campus grounds,” as they don’t want to be affiliated with Jared Taylor.
DORMAN: By letting Taylor speak inside one of their lecture halls, ASU seemingly ended up taking a side on the issue after all, says Cunningham.
CUNNINGHAM: And I think by having him do this, having him speak on campus, in an auditorium, ASU is somewhat affiliating itself with Jared Taylor. Which puts off a horrible image to future students, current students like myself, who thought that ASU’s message was about diversity and who it includes, not excludes.
DORMAN: In a written statement, the University said that it “permits registered student organizations to host guest speakers and use university facilities for student events.” And that the “presence of an invited speaker on campus does not in any way imply university endorsement.”
Students consistently expressed that they wanted ASU to take action to keep Taylor off campus. But what can the University do?
BODNEY: The ability of the university to engage in a kind of censorship or content-based prohibition on speech is rather limited, just as a first amendment proposition.
DORMAN: That’s David Bodney. He spoke to The State Press in his capacity as senior counsel for Ballard Spahr. Through his work, Bodney specializes in First Amendment law.
BODNEY: The First Amendment generally protects all manner of speech that many people find deeply offensive and disagreeable.
DORMAN: So, as far as the University’s role is concerned…
BODNEY: That doesn’t mean the University is required to promote that speech. But it does place a limit on the University’s ability to censor disagreeable, discomforting speech. And absent highly compelling circumstances that would warrant a limitation on content. And that’s quite rare.
DORMAN: What is the University normally able to do?
BODNEY: The University is really left to impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.
DORMAN: How does this specific event fit into that framework?
BODNEY: If it becomes clear that one group or another cannot engage without violence, or lawlessness, the university has power to end the event, or cancel the event, but that can be a very close call, because of the university’s need to support free speech.
DORMAN: Without specific knowledge of how or whether the University may have evaluated these factors, Bodney can only speak to general free speech law. As of this recording, ASU spokespersons have declined to comment and pointed us to existing public statements.
In their statement, ASU expressed that it allowed CRU to host their event on campus in compliance with the First Amendment and Arizona state law. State law makes it so that the University is open to any speaker a student group invites.
However, another student there that night expressed disappointment in ASU’s overall response to this one.
TAELOR SMITH: And I’m part of a historically Black sorority called Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Incorporated.
DORMAN: That’s Taelor Smith. She says her sorority was founded in 1922, in direct defiance of the KKK.
SMITH: We were founded in the basement of a library with the Grand Wizard of the KKK literally right across the street. So our founders risked their lives to create a safe space for women, but specifically women of color.
DORMAN: And 100 years later, Smith says she’s taking a stand, too.
SMITH: I think it was important that I made my – showed my face, made my presence known, wore my letters. The same letters that my founders fought for. In direct defiance of this event because if I’m being honest, it’s kind of ridiculous.
DORMAN: As far as ASU’s role…
SMITH: People have the right to their opinion. People have the right to speak on that opinion. But when a university gives them an additional platform or a larger platform to speak to not just the student body but the community in which the university lies. It makes me fear for my safety. And it makes me scared for the safety of my peers.
DORMAN: –which Smith says also led her to stand outside Neeb Hall that night.
SMITH: As Black people, we roll together. And we protect each other.
DORMAN: As far as the University protecting Smith and students like her…
SMITH: …when something like this happened, where this individual who they permitted to speak has directly influenced actions against our community or talks about how, how the Black community is detrimental to American populations – it hurts. And it makes me realize that although we're number one in innovation at ASU, we are not number one in caring for our students.
DORMAN: Smith also brought up the LIFT Initiative. The LIFT Initiative is a 25-point plan that ASU published in September 2020.
University President Michael Crow addressed the ASU community in a letter accompanying the initiative’s launch. He wrote, in part, that ASU would work hard to ensure that “Black students, faculty and staff — and other underrepresented groups and individuals” would have an empowering and welcoming campus experience.
Smith says the initiative alone is not enough to show that ASU cares for its students of color – specifically, its Black students.
SMITH: The whole point of the LIFT Initiative was to ensure that Black students can, really in a more broader sense, minority students were able to have a safe place to learn, be comfortable in their study. And this is directly against that.
DORMAN: The root of the problem on campus goes deeper than allowing Taylor to speak here, according to professor Bebout.
BEBOUT: The problem doesn't start with Taylor coming to campus. That's what brings people out. The problem is having the white nationalists student group on campus.
DORMAN: He says the University should consider taking action against CRU as a student organization.
BEBOUT: Five, six, seven years ago, the administration would often say, “Well, you know these Neo-nazis that are protesting on campus they're. They're from the community. They're not from us. They're not part of ASU.” Well, you know what? These folks are part of ASU.
DORMAN: ASU, Bebout says, should also consider who it wants to include, rather than who it wants to exclude, when defining what its campus community should look like.
BEBOUT: Do we want to hold them up, or do we want to lift up Black, brown, and Indigenous and Asian-american Sun Devils?
DORMAN: For the State Press, I’m Kirsten Dorman.
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Kirsten Dorman is a podcast reporter at The State Press, focusing on stories that reflect current events and cultural topics relevant to the ASU community. She has previously worked as the Production Director at Blaze Radio where, in her final semester, she now works as an Assistant Program Director.