The Right Way to Handle Disrupters on Campus: Kudos to the students of Georgetown University and Professor Robert Lieber

Last week, Palestinian activists tried to disrupt an event at Georgetown University discussing the political career of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Disruptions like this are commonplace on university campuses. They are led by Palestinian and Muslim activists, some coming from off-campus, and are typically joined by left-wing allies. What was unusual–and encouraging–was how Georgetown handled this assault on basic values of free discussion. Panel chair Robert Lieber and a supportive audience of Georgetown students combined to restore order and resume the discussion they came for.

Lieber is one of the country’s leading experts on US foreign policy and a long-time professor at Georgetown University (GU). The panel he led, sponsored by the school’s Center for Jewish Civilization, included leading historians and policymakers from the United States and Israel, all well equipped to consider Benjamin Netanyahu’s career in the context of Israel politics and international relations.

After the panelists had finished and turned to the audience for questions, the Israel-haters grabbed the floor. Professor Lieber describes what happened:israeli-apartheid-week

At that point, a young woman began screaming about Palestinians, Zionist panelists, and genocide, and two students unfurled a banner reading, “Palestine From the River to the Sea.”  [Note: That slogan implies Israel’s complete elimination.] The GU campus police, with whom we had coordinated before the event, swiftly removed the banner and its holders from the hall.  From the podium, I calmly but forcefully stated that the woman’s interruption was utterly unacceptable, that she was in blatant violation of the University’s speech code in preventing a speaker from speaking and audience from hearing.  I stated that her reference to “genocide” was unacceptable and indeed obscene, and I then added, either leave now or get in line to ask a question — which she did a few minutes later (once again referencing Palestinians and genocide). Benny Morris [one of Israel’s leading historians] responded calmly, firmly, and very effectively.

The actual disruption lasted no more than one minute in a nearly two-hour program.  The protest gained no support from the audience, and both those present and university officials have told me they think it was a model in how to deal with potential speech disruptions.  One of the keys to this was the firm statement at the outset of the event about the speech code.  As a result, when the outburst did occur, it was in a context where the audience understood and was receptive to the rules and had no doubt the protesters’ behavior was unacceptable and in violation of the GU policy.

Robert Lieber
Professor, Georgetown University

What restored free discourse at Georgetown?

♦ First, the school itself has clearly articulated principles of free speech. Those are real values, not pro forma statements.

♦ Second, the audience of Georgetown students and faculty demonstrated their support for these principles when someone tried to shout them down.

♦ Third, the faculty and staff who planned the event prepared to deal with disruptions and coordinated with campus police. It is a sad fact of university life that police have to be present for all pro-Israel events on campus. Those events are always threatened.

♦ Finally, Lieber handled the entire event professionally. He began the panel by reminding the audience of Georgetown’s free-speech principles, which include their right to hear the speakers. When Lieber was called upon to enforce those principles, he did so calmly and firmly. By contrast, at Swarthmore, when students prevented speakers from supporting hydrocarbon fracking, the president of the school and its dean of students were actually in the room and did nothing. Having received no pushback, the “coalition to intimidate” flourished and forced Swarthmore to cancel its distinguished commencement speaker, the former president of the World Bank. (His crime: he had been part of the George Bush administration.)

The Georgetown episode is worth recounting because it is illustrates both a common problem and  a solution. The problem is not limited to pro-Israel events. It includes virtually any talks opposed by a loose coalition of campus leftists, Palestinians and Muslim activists, and other ethnic and racial groups.

This coalition reserves for itself the right to decide which events can proceed, uninterrupted, and which ones will be harassed, disrupted, and shut down. Maintaining that de facto control is why they are so staunchly opposed to the Free Speech Principles recently restated by the University of Chicago. Under those principles, they would still have every right to protest, to march outside with signs, and to hold their own counter-events. They could put up all the posters they want. But they would no longer hold a “heckler’s veto” over who can speak on campus. They do not want to lose that power.

They tried to exercise that heckler’s veto once again at Georgetown last week. Their disruption was standard operating procedure. What was not standard was Professor Lieber’s effective efforts to stop them and continue the panel. What was not standard was Georgetown students’ support for free and open discourse.  It is Georgetown’s exemplary response that ought to become the new standard.


Thanks to Ken Waltzer and Linda Maizels of the Academic Engagement Network for providing information about the Georgetown event and the quotation from Prof. Lieber.

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6 Comments
  • Ed the Med
    September 14, 2016

    Well written Charles. On point. U. Chicago gets it right too

  • ZN
    September 14, 2016

    Super!

  • Konstantinos
    September 14, 2016

    I wonder how that might have played out at Berk.

  • Dr. Ed
    September 14, 2016

    Another difference was the GW admin permitting the police to act.

  • Andrew Lenihan
    September 16, 2016

    What a great expression: “ending the heckler’s veto”.

    They can express their views but they have zero rights in shutting down other peoples self expression

  • Kenneth Perlman
    September 17, 2016

    Yet there were still no consequences to the disrupters. They may not have succeeded for very long but they were not punished in any way for their behavior.

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