Leftist students are often critiqued for demanding “safe spaces” from controversial speakers who come to campus, but at Lewis & Clark College we are witnessing something truly bizarre. Student organizers of an International Affairs symposium are providing a safe space for an anti-immigrant “hate group” and preventing the public from attending the session out of fears of “anger and hostility.”
The student organizers of the symposium invited Jessica Vaughan, policy director for the anti-immigrant “hate group” Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) to campus for a debate in a session titled “The Huddled Masses.” The symposium has a long history of setting-up debates between people who vigorously disagree with each other, and this has sparked useful and much needed discussion on a campus that too often appears as a liberal monolith. Debate is good and necessary, but apparently the students were not aware that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has designated CIS as a hate group and had not done their homework to research the group’s extremist nativist views.
The SPLC put CIS on its list of hate groups because of its frequent dissemination of articles by white-nationalists, anti-Semites and its own misleading reports about immigration. Jessica Vaughan was responsible for the lie that 72 people from Trump’s seven banned countries were involved with terrorist activities, a lie then echoed by Trump advisor Stephen Miller. In an in-depth investigative report, the Washington Post gave Miller 3 Pinocchios for spreading this misinformation, but Vaughan and the CIS are the original source of the fake news.
The SPLC has also condemned the CIS for disseminating articles from white nationalists, Holocaust deniers, and explicitly racist websites. The founder of CIS is John Tanton, the father of the modern nativist movement. Before creating CIS in 1985, Tanton founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a far-right xenophobic organization that also spews hate about immigrants.
The CIS connection to far-right racists is hardly casual or a fluke. The SPLC writes, “In recent years, CIS has routinely disseminated the works of white nationalist writers, including Jared Taylor of American Renaissance. Taylor has written that ‘[w]hen blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western civilization – any kind of civilization – disappears.’”
The SPLC notes that CIS also circulated articles by John Friend, a contributing editor of the anti-Semitic The Barnes Review, proclaiming “so-called refugees are committing rape and other horrific crimes against European women and men in increasing numbers.” Friend once described the Holocaust as a “manufactured narrative . . . to advance the Jewish agenda of world domination and subjugation.”
If you read the CIS reports on immigrants, it’s clear they intend to strike fear in the hearts of citizens that undocumented immigrants will murder and rape them or be the next terrorist bomber. Academics and journalists alike have been debunking the lies spread by CIS for a long time. An article in the Daily Beast details how the fake news story by Jessica Vaughan about “36,000 criminal alien releases in 2013” was based on false data and misleading insinuations.
The Cato Institute excoriated a 2015 CIS report that exaggerated immigrant use of welfare by omitting crucial data. As Alex Nowrasteh put it, “the CIS study does not compare apples to apples but rather apples to elephants.” In 2016, the Cato Institute found that a different CIS report on immigrant welfare use “lacks any kind of reasonable statistical controls.”
The CIS is not merely a conservative think-tank with an alternative view on immigration. It is a crackpot organization with a website filled with xenophobic racists who twist data to spread lies about immigrants. Jessica Vaughan and the CIS may have the right to speak, but they do not deserve to be legitimized by giving them a platform at a serious academic symposium.
There have been many controversies over speakers on college campuses, from the anti-immigrant misogynist Milo Yiannopoulos to the neo-Eugenicist Charles Murray. In some of those cases, like at UC Berkeley and Middlebury, the protests against the speaker have turned aggressive with pushing and shoving and property damage.
At Lewis & Clark, where I teach in the History department and in Ethnic studies, nobody has publicly argued that the Jessica Vaughan should be prohibited from speaking on campus simply because she represents white nationalist, anti-immigrant views and spreads misleading information using dubious data.
The usual arguments about free speech buzzed over the faculty listserve, with some, like myself, arguing that since the student organizers were unaware that the CIS was a hate group when they invited Ms. Vaughan, that they would be within their right to disinvite her. Others argued that the labeling of the CIS as a hate-group was itself a form of censorship and intimidation, and said they wanted to hear what Vaughan had to say.
The student organizers declined to rescind the invitation, stating in a recent email circulated to the faculty, “we found Ms. Vaughan to be representative of a stance that has become more common in recent years on the issue of our debate without being excessively inflammatory.”
An even cursory examination of her articles on the CIS website, her twitter account, or her frequent appearances on Fox News would suggest otherwise. The CIS, and Jessica Vaughan in particular, is the source of much fake news and misleading information about immigrants, such as her outrageous claims about immigrants as criminals, welfare-cheats and terrorists. Although Vaughan’s reports are chock full of data, these data don’t withstand scrutiny and her conclusions are based in her nativism and not in facts.
That the student organizers, some of whom receive academic credit for researching and vetting speakers, failed to notice that Vaughan is not a serious academic, that her reports are full of misleading data and analysis and that the CIS is a front for white nationalist nativists is a failure of the liberal arts. If our students cannot discern a fake news nativist from a serious academic who opposes immigration, I fear for the future of the Republic.
The student organizers go on to say that “The narrative of groups like the CIS and its founders is an unfortunate reality of our current political and international climate, and it is, in our opinion, only through rigorous debate and headstrong questioning of those narratives that we can overcome them.” Fine. If you invite a hate group to campus and want to submit those ideas to “rigorous debate and headstrong questioning,” then open the event to the public.
Instead, the student organizers go on to say that given the controversy surrounding Vaughan’s visit, they will close this particular session to the public. All of the other sessions are open to the public; in my twenty years at the college I know of no other symposium that has ever locked out the public.
The student organizers’ explanation for the unprecedented restriction of the public is, they say, “to preserve our academic environment as a place of discussion and debate, rather than one of anger or hostility.” This view of the public as a angry and hostile mob which can’t be trusted to have a respectful academic debate is both profoundly anti-democratic and elitist.
Who says the public will bring anger and hostility? Who says the students and staff will not bring anger and hostility? And is it not ironic that the public is being blocked from attendance while the hate group, which regularly disseminates anger and hostility is being given a podium and a hefty honorarium?
The whole idea of preventing the public from being able to hear and debate the ideas of a hate group that has been invited onto campus strikes me as the height of hypocrisy. You can’t have free speech for a hate group and then ban the public because you fear “anger and hostility.” The students’ decision amounts to creating a safe space for a hate group against a public depicted as angry and hostile. One might expect this in a Red state, but on a liberal arts campus in Portland, Oregon, this double standard is truly strange.
On Monday afternoon, the organizers wrote to me to say that they would allow the public to attend in a separate room where the debate would be simulcast. They did this, according to the email, “to preserve our academic environment as a place of discussion and debate.” I suppose the public can be trusted to watch on a screen, but not to engage in a dialogue.
College campuses should be places where controversial ideas are heard and debated, perhaps even those of hate groups like the CIS. However, it is also the right of the public to engage in those debates, not just watch on a screen from another room. At Lewis & Clark, the International Affairs symposium student organizers have chosen to lock out the public, a decision that is a shameful blot of the reputation of a symposium that has always heralded its willingness to engage in controversial discussions.
The Portland public, however, will not sit idly by while a white nationalist nativist group spreads its hate. A local activist group, Portland’s Resistance, has vowed to take advantage of their rights to free expression and protest the forum to which they as the public have been excluded. Gregory McKelvey one of the founders of the activist group and a Third Year Law School student at Lewis & Clark College, said, “We have a right to protest hate, just as much as they have a right to spread it.”
I hope that the peaceful protest and the forum happen without any violence and that all parties are heard respectfully. I have encouraged my students and colleagues to come to the session armed with data and arguments not Molotov cocktails.
The debate will happen both inside the hall and outside by the public. I only hope the students learn from this experience that the response to controversy should not be limiting debate, but extending it to all. It is a sad day indeed when college students fear engaging the public in debate.