YAF’s request to bring Robert Spencer to campus under review

Robert Spencer, a proposed YAF speaker (File Photo)

Robert Spencer, a proposed YAF speaker (File Photo)

Editor’s Note: This information is now out of date. For the latest on this story, please check out this article.  

By Benjamin Pontz, News Editor

The TL;DR

  • YAF’s request to bring Robert Spencer, founder of Jihad Watch, to campus is under further review by college administration.
  • Dean Julie Ramsey says additional planning and further deliberation is required, and that, while freedom of speech is a “strong value,” it’s not an absolute.
  • A decision is expected by the end of next week.

The Gettysburg chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) has requested to have Robert Spencer, the Director of Jihad Watch and a FOX News contributor, speak on the campus about radical Islam, but the college has not yet decided whether he can speak this semester due to concerns about possible protests as well as a need for more time to vet his potential presentation.

Dean Julie Ramsey, Vice President of College Life and Dean of Students, said that Spencer “falls into a category of speakers whom some will find very objectionable and someone who deserves some careful thought and due diligence before a commitment is made. We are continuing our consultations with YAF and others about the  invitation, the timing and the planning and we hope to make a decision by next week.”

Scott Moore, Nick Arbaugh, and Wellington Baumann (president, vice president, and Student Senate representative respectively) said in an interview that their right to freedom of expression is being limited.

“The impression that I got is that [the college] is prioritizing the feelings of anyone who might possibly be offended on campus over the freedom of expression,” said Moore.

Arbaugh added that YAF would plan to follow Spencer’s presentation with a question and answer session in which anyone who attends would be free to challenge what they heard and engage Spencer in “academic debate.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calls Spencer one of America’s “most prolific and vociferous anti-Muslim propagandists” and lists both Jihad Watch and Stop Islamization of America (SOIA) as hate groups.

In a blog post, Spencer fired back, writing, “The SPLC’s Hate Groups list is a cudgel, a tool for the use of Leftist enemies of the freedom of speech … Leftists and Islamic supremacists avid to shut down honest discussion of jihad terror and Islamic supremacism contact the event organizers, tell them that the SPLC classifies us as ‘hate group leaders,’ and all too often, ignorant or cowardly officials, unaware of or indifferent to how they’re being played and anxious to avoid ‘controversy,’ cancel the event. It works like a charm, in just the way it was intended to work.”

Presently, the college is working to determine whether Spencer is part of a hate group and what exactly his message will be.

Ramsey insists that, ultimately, the college’s decision “is not about whether a person is offensive or not,” but she says that potential response by on-campus or off-campus individuals must be taken into consideration when planning events.

At this point, the college has three priorities in making its final decision: working through some contractual issues regarding the speech (which Ramsey says is a logistical issue that should be worked out), additional planning to determine what security concerns or other considerations will affect the event including selection of the appropriate venue, and consultation with members of the campus community about Spencer and his message, a process in which YAF will be included.

With protests frequently storming college campuses over speakers, it changes the calculus in how the institution plans for events. Ramsey emphasized that the college today must be more thoughtful and careful about the content, the speaker, and safety, which she said are not necessarily reasons not to do something, but reasons to be more deliberate in planning.

Ramsey said that a recent incident at Vermont’s Middlebury College in which a speech by Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, was shut down amid violent student protests that ultimately injured a faculty member hosting the event is at the “forefront of our minds.”

“We’re not that different from Middlebury,” she noted.

In an interview with The Gettysburgian in March, Riggs said she was distressed by the Murray incident.

“I just find that to be so distressing, and I hope that is never a situation that would occur at Gettysburg College where we would have someone come in, and not give them the courtesy to speak. We can protest those views, but shouting someone down, to me, is not the direction we would ever want to go,” she said.

Ramsey mentioned that in cases like this, some schools have invited a second speaker with differing views to provide additional context for audience members, which is something potentially under consideration.

Dr. Karen Frey, Associate Professor of Management and faculty advisor for YAF, said she is “a little concerned” with the college leaving the door open to barring Spencer over a potentially divisive message.

“Freedom of speech is an issue only when you disagree with someone,” she said. “If I see a poster for a very liberal speaker who might offend me, I just don’t go.”

Baumann echoed those sentiments.

“It’s really easy to defend free speech when you agree with what’s being said, but it’s a testament to your character when you do not agree with what’s being said,” he said.

YAF requested $2000 from the Student Senate, a request that was granted at their meeting on April 10 after considerable discussion. The club representative for the College Democrats acknowledged that while Spencer’s message would probably not be something with which his club would agree, they respected his right to speak.

Luke Frigon, who is currently the Treasurer of Student Senate and Director of the Budget Management Committee and who recently was elected President of Senate for the coming academic year, spoke with Ramsey himself to try to better understand the college’s apprehension. Ultimately, he said he supports the decision both of the college to further review the speaker and of Senate to appropriate the funds.

“I think that we as a Senate have the obligation to encourage controversial and potentially offensive speakers to come to campus, as well as those from all ends of the political and social spectrum,” he said.

Representatives of YAF were effusive in their praise of Senate during an interview; Moore called them “wonderful and efficient every step of the way.”

Arbaugh went on to say that if money were a sticking point, the national YAF organization may be willing to underwrite the event entirely, but Ramsey said the college’s concerns are not with the financial aspect of the event, rather with ensuring Spencer’s potential visit would align with the college’s mission statement.

“Of course we vet speakers. Of course we think about the implications,” she said. “We didn’t say yes; we didn’t say no. The speaker certainly has been divisive and controversial on other campuses. We know that colleges across the country are facing some pretty stiff protest concerning a variety of speakers. We just want to make sure if we do [bring Spencer to campus] we do it well.”

Moore accused the college administration of being “willing to shut down its own students to appease outside people.”

During the Student Senate’s debate, one senator raised the possibility that local far-left activists could disrupt the event.

Ultimately, Ramsey says the college’s decision will draw on conversations with stakeholders on campus and reflect whether the event — in intent and execution — will align with the college’s institutional values, which include both freedom of expression and a respect for all members of the campus community.

“We have a strong commitment to freedom of expression,” Ramsey said.  “Is it a strong value? Is it an important value? Absolutely; no question about it. But is it an absolute value that anyone and everyone is welcome to speak on a college campus at any time? I don’t think so.”

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Author: Benjamin Pontz

Benjamin Pontz '20 serves as news editor of The Gettysburgian, a position he has held since the middle of his first year, during which he wrote 50 articles on topics ranging from student activism on campus to sports. Ben also served as the event coverage and social media coordinator and led the paper's inaugural efforts using Facebook Live and live tweeting events on campus. He is a political science and public policy double major with a minor in music, and he reads up to seven newspapers daily. Follow him on Twitter @benpontz.

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