Rowden: Student protest against ICE representative was misguided, counterproductive

Jacob Rowden, Op-Ed Contributor

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

At this point, most are aware of the controversial protest last week in response to sociology Prof. Beth Redbird’s invitation of a public relations officer of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to speak to her class. The protesters succeeded in their goal (according to the Facebook event) to “disrupt and demonstrate that ICE is not welcome and that Northwestern will be a safe campus for undocumented immigrants,” as the protest resulted in the cancellation of the speaker and the class.

University President Morton Schapiro and Provost Dan Linzer released a letter calling the protesters’ actions “contrary to the values of the University,” which was met by a slew of statements criticizing their lack of regard for the safety of undocumented individuals at Northwestern. However, I believe the core issue is that many people have a very flawed understanding of the argument against the protest.

As I understand, the protesters recognize that there are undocumented students at NU. They understand that although their circumstances are wide-ranging, some individuals may be affected by societal injustice in the U.S. The new administration has enforced deportation policy more strictly and under much more publicity than the Obama administration, which quietly deported more people than any past administration. As such, they presume some could find it upsetting or even traumatizing to hear an ICE member speak. Additionally, they believe the very act of inviting this speaker carries a symbolic “legitimization” of the position, which they regard as inappropriate.

My first issue with the protest is that I believe it was entirely misguided. Prior to the event, specific information about the speaker or the talk was not readily available to students not enrolled in the course. After the cancellation, Redbird claimed that the purpose of the talk was for students to ask questions and better understand discourse surrounding this issue. However, according to the protest’s Facebook event, the role of the ICE member was to “promote their agenda and recruit members.” The mischaracterization is absurd: The organizers constructed a narrative for the speech, and spurred protesters with a nefarious framing of the speaker.

The protest was also misguided because their goal was not simply to demonstrate; it was to disrupt and censor the speaker, stemming from the belief that an ICE presence should not be legitimized. To me, this unwillingness to engage signals a profound arrogance or a perceived inferiority of their arguments. Rational people would grant that a public relations officer of ICE possesses some amount of experience or expertise in the topic of immigration that we will never understand without communicating with them. If your goal is to prevent this information from being shared, then you either regard that perspective as entirely useless, or you fear it illuminates flaws in your ideology.

However, the goal of protecting individuals who may have suffered as a result of the speaker was perhaps was the most ineffective aspect of the entire movement. Following President Donald Trump’s election, the University reaffirmed its position of not assisting the federal government with deportation or providing immigration status data to the government, so the only risks posed were emotional. Emotional impacts that can almost certainly be avoided with a sincere email to the professor. So the protest protected people from what exactly? From putting a human face to an agency that’s been characterized as racist and evil? From learning about how said agency operates, and perhaps gaining valuable insight? From realizing that we can face situations that make us uncomfortable or anxious, and emerge a more formidable person? Mischaracterizing the speaker could have intensified students’ anxieties, and it is not obvious whether they did more harm than good.

It concerns me that there are many who think listening to someone people disagree with is more harmful to the collective community than a protest that disrupts a class and censors an entire perspective. One of the statements outrageously claimed that “the University legitimized state-sanctioned violence,” and it was “literally a matter of life and death for undocumented peoples.” The former claim is illogical, considering every law enforcement or military agency can be construed as “state-sanctioned violence” yet we recognize their necessity to the orderly functioning of a state, and the irrationality of the latter quotation is self-evident.

This is where I regard the actions of the protest organizers as outright dangerous. I can acknowledge that any speaker may carry negative impacts, but to think that those even remotely compare to the dangers of censorship is absurd. In many ways, the protest used what I view as propaganda; protesters untruthfully characterized aspects of the talk’s purpose, ultimately shutting down the speaker and entire class. Across the country, we’ve seen similar trends in many college protests: mischaracterizations of individuals’ opinions and attempts to censor speeches. This should be concerning to everyone, and yet alarmingly few object.

We need to seriously consider the consequences of this kind of trend of censorship. What will our society look like 20 years from now if universities (or individuals within them) continue to try to define the “right” side of an issue and deny the other side a platform? This is the next generation of leaders, and we should want them to be prepared for the complexities of real world problems. The University is a place to pursue the truth, not to be indoctrinated.

Jacob Rowden is a Weinberg junior. He can be contacted at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.