The disruption by protesters of the talk being given by sitting CIA Director John Brennan on Friday afternoon is a dark mark on this University’s reputation. Three separate disruptions by shouting activists derailed an otherwise illuminating discussion from one of the Obama administration’s highest officials.
We condemn the actions of the protesters, who not only shut down the talk in the guise of promoting their own free speech, but also succeeded only in silencing the voice of an honorable civil servant and ruining the experience of many in the Penn community.
The protesters identified themselves as members of the Students for a Democratic Society, a resurrection of the group founded in the 1960s amid the growth of the New Left in college campuses. The incarnation of the group present at Friday’s talk exists in a different cultural milieu, one of heightened sensitivity to the speech and actions of others.
We are in the midst of a national debate on the role of speech on college campuses, and while neither side in the debate is entirely wrong, Penn’s campus — usually less prone than others to such disturbances — was visited by an unwelcome product of that debate. Following their models of earlier generations, these protesters reintroduced civil disobedience at a deliberately provocative scale, looking to inspire someone else in that crowd to anger or to humiliate Mr. Brennan and the assembled members of the Penn community.
Let us not confuse their actions with those of just crusaders, battling a tyrannical government. The protesters did not come to the event anticipating the beginning of any productive dialogue to induce policy change — for instance, in the height of the event’s absurdity, they got into a shouting match with a former Congresswoman and a law school dean.
What, indeed, would have been their preferred policies? The first shouting pair of protesters had the audience believing they were anti-drone warfare. Had they remained in their seats the entire time, they would have been privy to the director’s thoughtful comments on the administration’s drone policies, comments that highlighted the restrained and careful decisions he and the presidents he has served undertook. But the second pair pivoted off-foot, raising a Palestinian flag and literally screaming bloody murder. Yet a third pair threw all notion of policy away and droned out conspiracy statements on the CIA being a terrorist organization.
This was no well thought out, well targeted protest designed to advance their political agenda in the presence of a governmental elite — this was protest as shotgun, a blaring of false equivalences, summed up on one protester’s words as “KKK, CIA”. To any viewer, the goal of the disruption could only have been the insult of a man whose careful steering of the United States’ counterterrorism operations for the past decade has undoubtedly saved scores of lives at home and abroad.
How could Penn let this happen? At the start of this academic year, the Provost’s office revealed a campaign designed to handle exactly these situations. The University encouraged the presence of so-called Open Expression Monitors, observers sent to potentially fraught events or programs to ensure that the rights of the “meeting or demonstration participants to express their opinions in non-disruptive ways” are upheld.
The only ones who sought to remove the protesters were the director’s own security detail and Dean Ruger himself, who should be commended for doing so. With no other recourse, students at the event were obliged to simply stand up and begin applauding, hoping to drown out the unending shouts. Certain steps simply need to be taken before any high profile speaker comes to campus, should the University be so lucky to host someone of Mr. Brennan’s stature again, and one of these is basic preparation for disruptive protests.
American democracy does not take place via shouting match and we need not reproduce the circus politics of this year’s presidential election in our auditoriums and walkways. Unfortunately, the disruption in one way or another of political figures’ campus visits has become almost a Penn tradition at this point, with examples ranging from Republican strategist Frank Luntz to Narendra Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat, who was disinvited from speaking at a Wharton undergraduate club. The University must seek to do a better job of managing these high profile events. Otherwise, who would ever want to come here?
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