Michael Roth, Protest, and Free Speech (Part 1 of 2)

 

Many students, myself included, feel that Roth’s advocacy and authority on free speech and campus protest do not line up in reality given his record of activity concerning these topics at Wesleyan, using his perceived advocacy to both profit himself (such as the release of a book that addresses his advocacy for his brand of free speech), as well as Wesleyan itself. Let’s take a look at his and Wesleyan’s record in recent times.

Safe Enough Spaces

If you’ve been on twitter in the last few months and have any connection to Wesleyan on there, it’s likely you’ve heard that Michael Roth, Wesleyan’s president, has a new book out.

Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses” (I’ll give you a moment to take a breath) has drawn attention to Roth by way of praise from fellow writers, thinkers, and so on, as both the author of this book, and, as one Jason Stanley puts it:

Lately Roth has also been included on various panels focusing on free speech on campus, such as a debate on campus speaker disinvitations, hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, as well as a debate hosted by the McCain Institute, the question being “Are College Campuses Eroding Free Speech?

In this way, Michael Roth seems to be touted as an authority on free speech, and in part protest, on college campuses, both by his peers and by the way he presents himself.


Roth taking a knee…in his house…on Facebook.

 

student thoughts on the #solidarity

 

Spring 2019 – WesFest “Five More Workers” Protests Begin

The student group USLAC led multi-day protests during all three days of WesFest in Spring 2019, manifesting in the form of rallies, disruptions, and distribution of information, demanding that Wesleyan (with Michael Roth being put in focus specifically due to his large income as president) hire five more custodians due to worker reports of unfair workloads (much more on this is detailed in a previous Wesleying post here and the Argus here). I highly suggest reading Argus articles here and here, which describe some of the details of the issues at hand.

Students march from the Admissions Office to South College on the first day of protest

The first invocation of ideals of free speech from the administration came after the second day of protest, a day where multiple WesFest events were disrupted. The following day, the Argus published an article that described a disruption during Michael Roth’s speech:

“At 9 a.m. on Thursday, April 11, protesters again gathered at Roth’s welcome address in Beckham, where they began chanting, an escalation of their silent protest the day before. According to a protester present at the event, deans and Public Safety officers told the students that they were risking their status as students and were told to leave. The protesters continued to chant, which prompted attendees to leave Beckham. Roth finished his speech outside the building and did not conduct the scheduled Q&A.”

– Wesleyan Argus, April 12th, 2019

This disruption prompted an email by Dean Mike Whaley sent at 6:15 PM, April 11th, to the student body, condemning those actions:

“Today’s actions violated our policies in that some student protestors deprived others of the opportunity to speak and be heard. As such, those protestors will face disciplinary charges. Serious or repeated violations may result in more severe consequences, including suspension.”

– Dean Michael Whaley, April 11th, 2019 (emphasis added)

Public Safety officer records student protesters

The general consensus among the students who took concern with this email was that it was used as an intimidation tactic against protestors. An Argus op-ed captured an explanation to this kind of visceral response from the administration:

“Wesleyan avoids confronting student concerns by commodifying protest as a novelty. The administration twists these actions into a cultivated aesthetic; Wesleyan University likes to bill itself as a progressive institution…

WesFest is a massive PR campaign to persuade admitted students to come here. The USLAC-affiliated demonstration places pressure on the University administration by soiling the effectiveness of the PR.”

– Wesleyan Argus, April 11th, 2019

Uploaded via Soggy We$ Memes, one student showed how some prefrosh may have perceived protests

 

Few involved in the protests were truly surprised by the University’s reaction. Wesleyan needed to protect itself. However, the aggressiveness from Public Safety officers was, regardless, intense. Protestors I communicated with told stories of being chased down by Public Safety. In a protest later in the day on April 11th, there was a physical altercation between a Public Safety officer and a student, as described by the Argus:

“At 2 p.m., protesters attempted to gain access to Marysol Castro ’96’s alumni keynote address in Beckham; however, three Public Safety officers, Director of Public Safety Scott Rohde, and a couple staff members prevented the protesters from entering the room. The protesters waited outside, then began chanting. Saying they were being too loud, officers began asking them to leave. One officer grabbed the back of a student’s jacket, forcefully guiding him down the stairs.”

– Wesleyan Argus, April 12th, 2019 (emphasis added)

P-Safe officer takes student down the stairs

Students involved the protests knew the risks they faced for the escalation to active disruptions given the policy outlined in the Code of Non-Academic Conduct (CNAC) in the Student Handbook. As the CNAC states in a selection from the disruption policy:

“Demonstrators, however, do not have the right to deprive others of the opportunity to speak or be heard…or otherwise disrupt the educational or institutional processes in a way that interferes with the safety or freedom of others…

Protests, sit-ins, demonstrations, student strikes, and other forms of expressions also violate the Code of Non-Academic Conduct when they

• Disrupt or obstruct curricular, co-curricular, or administrative/operational activities of the University

• Deny the rights of students, faculty, staff, or guests of the University”

– Wesleyan University Student Handbook 2019-2020

Keep in mind, while I reference these policies, in no way am I saying that the legitimacy of a protest is determined by whether or not a protest falls within these guidelines. These rules, while supposedly sensible, are shaped (whether intentional or not) in ways that protect harmful policies and modes of running Wesleyan by letting the administration stay unaccountable, at least in the sense that the policy protects them from any consequence that actually affects the school. The administration demonizes those who break this code under the guise that these students are taking away the rights of others (as shown by Whaley’s email), framing protestors as unjust in their actions.

One particular reaction to protest by the school on April 11th would, to a degree, surprise even those who had been involved in campus activism for years.

Spring 2019 – Police Called to Protests

On April 11th, in the early afternoon, while people were protesting back at the admissions office, Middletown Police drove up Wyllys Avenue due to a call made by Public Safety.

Dean of Students Rick Culliton then proceeded to approach Tomás Rogel ’19 and began to harass him, asking for his name. He then proceeded to threaten police involvement if he did not cooperate. After Culliton talked to police, the police decided not to become involved.

Dean Rick Culliton moments before approaching Rogel

This was a blatant attack on the right to protest; a series peaceful protests on which law enforcement was called upon for the purpose of breaking up protest/intimidating people from future action.

“It’s weird as hell that Wesleyan would threaten to call the police on brown and black students at a time where these groups are being targeted and killed the most. This school confuses me everyday”

– Student via Soggy We$ Memes, April 12th, 2019 (before informed that the police were actually called)

“Yep, they fully called the police and they showed up. One of the Wesleyan Deans singled me out and threatened me with a cop, while I was in the company of multiple white students, and even the cop was more level-headed and respectful than the dean and psafe.”

– Tomás Rogel via Soggy We$ Memes, April 12th, 2019

Before we get more into this situation, a tangent:

September 2019 – Roth Faces Questions

On September 26th, Roth fielded a few questions from students at his R.J. Julia book talk for Safe Enough Spaces, according to the Argus:

“President Roth, I’m wondering if you feel safe at Wesleyan, and if so, why did you feel the need for your administration to call the police on students last semester protesting to make the University safer for overworked custodial workers by demanding the hiring of five more custodial workers on this campus?” Leah Levin Pensler ’20 asked. “Do you care about the safety of our campus custodial workers, or do you only care about the safety of those who pay tuition to attend this University?”

“It’s an important question,” Roth said. “Just to be clear, I didn’t call the police on protesters, but the administration did because those protesters were pushing staff members, or those staff members felt as though they were being pushed, and I think you can remember what the police did—”

“That’s not true!” Pensler interjected. “Public Safety pushed student protesters.”

-Wesleyan Argus, Oct. 1st, 2019 (emphasis added)

How do Roth’s claims line up with police reports? Find out in part 2.