The news of a lecture given by a Cornell law professor created uproar at Vassar College last week.
Prof. William Jacobson, law — known for posting conservative-leaning opinions on his blog, Legal Insurrection — gave a lecture to Vassar students on free speech on college campuses, hosted by the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union, a chapter of Young Americans for Liberty.
Jacobson said that he reached out to the organization, having been hosted by them in 2014, after a planned lecture that he prepared for Dartmouth fell through. Jacobson then offered to give the same lecture to Vassar.
However, in the days leading up to his lecture, some students planned “emergency meetings” and organized “safety teams” for students. Rumors circulated widely and research into Jacobson’s past work was spread among students. One group even demanded that the Vassar president consider canceling the event.
His speech — originally titled “‘Hate Speech’ is Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville” — aimed to, as Jacobson told The Sun, detail the tension on college campuses between “the desire for freedom of speech to promote an open intellectual environment, and speech that may offend some people or groups.”
The title of his speech was later changed to “An Examination of Hate Speech and Free Speech on College Campuses.”
Mounting tensions from this flip-flopping title and fear of a surge of white nationalism in Poughkeepsie threw the student body into disarray, according to Kimmie Nguyen, a junior at Vassar.
Pietro Geraci, Vassar senior and president of VCLU, the student group that hosted the lecture, explained that this title change came from a discrepancy between the name given to the organization that approved and provided funds for the event, the Vassar Student Association, and the title the group used for advertising.
Although Jacobson said that he thought the title-change was a “non-issue,” Nguyen, who was not on campus when the event happened, thought the original title is what ignited students.
This original inclusion of Charlottesville in the title as well as the advertising leading up to the lecture spurred much of the controversy, Nguyen said in a message.
In fact, Nguyen said that she did not think the content of the lecture itself outraged students, but rather “there were a lot of extra underlying issues that acted as catalysts to the explosion of this event.”
“I think the event was purposefully misadvertised to the student body,” she said. “Which in turn created a tense campus environment because we thought this was actually going to be another Charlottesville.”
Although he denies the truth of these sentiments, Geraci too said that he thought students feared that Jacobson’s lecture was “attempting to make Vassar Charlottesville 2.0,” and put “marginalized people in physical danger.”
Geraci explained that this fear was amplified in that Jacobson apparently encouraged attendance from his friends. Since the lecture was public, students may have feared a surge in white nationalists on campus, Geraci said.
Groups on campus, particularly Healing 2 Action — a campus organization whose goal is “to raise awareness of social and political issues” — mobilized, organizing events prior to and during the lecture.
Matthew Au, Vassar junior and member of a safety team organized by Healing 2 Action, explained that the organization planned a community gathering before the event “to celebrate community and provide safety (both physical and mental/emotional) for POC/queer/trans people,” he said.
The group also set up a “safe room” in the same building as the lecture took place and organized “safety teams,” for student support Au said. Other groups, including the Vassar Jewish Union and the Religious & Spiritual Life Office, planned gatherings for the night of the lecture to provide food and prayer.
Geraci said he was not aware of the discrepancy of titles until the Friday prior the lecture but recognized that the change could have made it seem that the group was attempting to manipulate organizations to provide funding.
“I agree that that wasn’t acceptable and that we shouldn’t have done that. And I messed that up,” he said. “I should have went with what was on the funding application. I should have changed it when it was brought to my attention.”
However, the change in the title prompted the Vassar Student Association, who originally funded and co-sponsored Jacobson’s lecture, to withdraw their support, Pietro said. The organization then proceeded to send a statement, the night before the lecture, to Vassar President Elizabeth Bradley and the entire student body, demanding that the lecture be canceled.
The VSA’s statement, provided to The Sun, cited past writings by Jacobson to “demonstrate the many ways that [Jacobson] violates principles that we stand for as a VSA and as Vassar College” and to show “the ways in which [the writings] are racist, sexist, and transphobic actions and views that are antithetical to this campus.”
Representatives from VSA declined to respond to requests for comment.
Vassar President Elizabeth Bradley then issued a statement in response that same night, affirming that the lecture would still take place, saying that she hopes Vassar “can be a campus where we think about how our words will affect others and where principles of equity and inclusion underpin our actions.”
“I have been made aware of the very real and legitimate pain that students are feeling about one of these events,” Bradley said in her statement. “Students have expressed fear for their safety and well-being, particularly in the national context of hate speech and divisive language. Many find this time extremely stressful and unsettled.”
Despite the uproar leading up the lecture, the event itself “proceeded quite well,” Jacobson said. Nearly 200 students attended the lecture and dozens attended dressed entirely in black to protest, Geraci said. Almost all attendees remained for 45-minute presentation and 120-minute question and answer session, Jacobson said.
However, the drama did not end that night.
The next morning, posters with the faces of VCLU members appeared on campus, saying that the organization “loves hate speech” and encouraging students to approach these members “to tell them what you think,” the posters read.
Geraci said that it is believed that this postering was the work of a single individual. This act also prompted a statement from Bradley. Healing 2 Action and the Vassar Student Association have both denounced these posters.
“We are taking this matter very seriously. The posters were immediately removed, and campus security has been engaged and are investigating. The President and Dean of the College as well as support staff are reaching out to each of the students shown in these posters to provide support and point them toward available College resources,” said Amanita Duga-Carroll, director of media relations at Vassar.
Despite everything that encompassed Jacobson’s presentation, Geraci said he thought that it was “very important” to bring Jacobson.
In fact, Geraci said that the lecture “was probably one of the finest lessons ever taught at Vassar. With regards to speech and the Constitution and the First Amendment. I think it was really important for people to be able to come and have expos[ure] to this view.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Matthew Au as a member of Healing 2 Action.