Letter to the Editor: University reactions to ICE protest overlook role of protest as intellectual, free speech

On May 16, 2017, some students on the Northwestern campus protested a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement representative, who was invited to speak to a sociology class. Since that protest, the students have been vilified in the conservative media as censoring the free speech of the professor and the ICE official. Supporters have also spoken up to defend the students, with some arguing that bringing an ICE official to campus creates an atmosphere that harms marginalized students, including those who are undocumented. But few have emphasized the students’ right to protest and their legitimate exercise of their free speech rights. Instead, the University administration has gone so far as to publicly wave the specter of unspecified future action against these students, although to our knowledge it has not taken any disciplinary steps at this time. The University’s statement sends a message that mere protest can be subject to punishment.

The fundamental issue at stake is the free speech right of the students: The students have the protected right to speak, which includes the right to protest. This is not just our opinion. Free speech remains a constitutionally guaranteed right in the United States.

Protest is one form of such free speech, and it is critical to intellectual inquiry and debate. The suggestion that protests are forms of censorship rather than of intellectual life is, as far as intellectual history is concerned, disingenuous. The protests following Martin Luther’s theological revisions brought about the major intellectual transformation known as the Protestant Reformation. The modernizing revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries birthed radical intellectual disciplines — such as history, sociology and biology — that are now considered traditional. Through the student protests of the long 1960s, traditional fields of inquiry were revolutionized once again, while ethnic studies and gender studies emerged as the new radical disciplines.

In many ways, intellectual life as it currently stands in all the disciplines that compose the university is a long reflection on the social, political and theoretical effects of modern social movements. This assessment is not a radical one, as it is worth remembering that reflection on protest and revolution was what gave birth even to modern conservatism; one of the foundational conservative texts is, after all, titled “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” To protect acts of protest as free speech is not a partisan position, and waving the specter of discipline against those who participate in the speech of protest is thus to betray the commitment to common intellectual life for which the University stands.

Over the coming weeks, we may perhaps engage our students in dialogue about these protests. The events of the last week demand impassioned and informed debate about power, immigration, citizenship, documentation, the law, consciousness, protest and the theory and methods of education. Such pedagogical work, which has been initiated by the students and through which they may be teaching us about the present world in which they live as well as future worlds they hope to create, is impeded by the threat of institutional discipline. In order for the University to truly embody its academic vocation, Northwestern University must state formally that there will be no threat of disciplinary reprisals against the free speech of protest on its campus.

Justin K.H. Tse and Ji-Yeon Yuh
Visiting assistant professor of Asian American studies and associate professor of history and Asian American studies