SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: September 07, 2023

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):Washington College

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On September 7, 2023, Washington College officials shut down an academic event featuring remarks from Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University because of student protests.

Joseph Prud’homme, an associate professor and director of the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture at Washington College had invited George to speak during the inaugural Lawrence W. Swanstrom Memorial Lecture. George is a conservative legal scholar who serves on the board of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation. He is a founder of the National Organization for Marriage and opposes same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and the expansion of transgender rights. His prepared remarks for the September 7 lecture focused on the pursuit, preservation, and transmission of truth in the liberal arts and criticized what he saw as the unwillingness to entertain contrary opinions in liberal arts institutions.

During the weeks leading up to the event, information about George’s affiliation with the Heritage Foundation and stance towards same-sex marriage and transgender rights began circulating on campus, leading students to protest and ask that the college cancel the lecture.

On September 6, the day before the lecture, Washington College President Michael J. Sosulski sent an email to the college community stating that the lecture would take place and that the university would provide an alternative forum for students who felt “distressed” by George’s presence on campus.

On September 7, prior to the event, several dozen students, faculty, and staff held a rally, holding pride flags and posting signs supportive of transgender rights. As George gave his remarks, the protesters entered the room where he was speaking. They shouted, blew whistles, and played loud music. Campus security officers, who had been briefed on the potential for disruption and were present at the event, did not intervene. After approximately 15 minutes of discussion between the protesters, administration, and faculty, the event was canceled. It was unclear who decided to end the event. According to some reports, George asked to leave. According to Washington College officials, Sosulski made the decision.

Following the event, several students were reportedly subject to disciplinary action, including at least two students who were accused of violating the college’s honor code and could face suspension or expulsion.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the failure of a higher education institution to ensure the shutdown of a campus event. Higher education officials should protect academic freedom and take all available steps to ensure the exercise of academic freedom, including during on-campus, academic events. In addition, while students have the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, including the right to protest content and events with which they disagree, they must exercise those rights responsibly and with respect for the free expression rights and academic freedom of other members of the higher education community and society at large. The cancellation of an event because of student protest undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.

Sources:
https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-professor-spoke-about-campus-illiberalism-students-shouted-him-down-over-his-anti-lgbtq-views https://www.insidehighered.com/news/students/free-speech/2023/09/27/robert-georges-speech-about-free-speech-shouted-down https://www.stardem.com/news/local_news/protesters-silence-renowned-speaker-at-washington-college/article_997b9cfa-4f4b-11ee-902b-573058135ae8.html
https://www.thefire.org/research-learn/fire-letter-washington-college-september-14-2023