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

This is Part 2 of a two-part article. Read the first part here.

Activism is used by Wesleyan as a means of advertisement, made into a commodity

Spring 2019 – Police Reports

Police reports from April 11th

According to Middletown Police reports, Public Safety called the police on April 11th not once, but twice, once at 9:17 AM, and again at 2:16 PM, with no actual presence from the police occurring for the first call.

Remarks written by Middletown Police dispatch for each call

WPS VERY LARGE GROUP, UNK ON THE EXACT NUMBER, GATHERING OUTSIDE, STATES THAT THEY’RE BEING UNRULY.”

– Middletown Police, April 11th, 2019, 9:17 AM

“Unruly”? What does “unruly” mean? Public Safety’s description of what they apparently deemed worthy of calling armed authorities to confront their students sounds like a regular protest. Of course, it’s going to be “unruly”, whatever one means by that. A protest is not always (and most often isn’t) a quiet, non-disturbing, and manageable affair, it is disruptive on one level or another. If Public Safety’s bar for calling the police is a large group of students being “unruly”, then they could justify calling them for any protest.

large group of kids has returned. wps said they’re getting out of control

– Middletown Police, April 11th, 2019, 2:16 PM

Again, a vague complaint about an event that Public Safety felt was justifiable for police involvement. What is meant by “out of control”? Were they just uncomfortable, making some sort of guess that some act of violence may occur? While disruptions were occurring throughout the day, they were peaceful. What law was being broken?

In the days following, nothing was heard from Roth or the administration regarding the incident, nor has there been any formal response since. The man who regularly expresses advocacy for free speech and protest, who regularly writes updates on his blog on campus issues, who is in direct connection with Culliton and the University at large, saw and has seen no need to condemn the events of that day as a dangerous occurrence. As shown by the quote below the picture of Culliton from part 1, there is an inherent danger in calling the police on protestors, especially for black and brown people. For the school to have called the police when there was zero danger for anyone involved is a blatant act of intimidation that puts people in danger no matter the level of involvement Psafe intended the police to have. Despite how the CNAC may apply to protestors’ actions, the protests put no one in harm’s way.

To make matters worse, an administrator harassed a student, threatening police involvement and directly endangering that student over a peaceful protest. Even with Roth’s what-is-allowed-by-the-handbook context for free speech/protest on campus, he should have been on top of issuing a response after the fact, given the dangerous nature of police presence. Considering the protest was centered around holding the school, and Roth himself, accountable for their lack of action, I am not surprised that he remained silent in the following days.

Roth’s justification of police presence is not represented in the police reports. If students were pushing faculty, wouldn’t that be something that Public Safety would have cited, rather than a vague claim of people acting “out of control”? Although it goes without saying, the morning call is in no way covered by Roth’s justification. While no police arrived, they were called on what was described as an “unruly gathering”, again, no claims to any contact or harm.

Psafe’s response to the protest is quite telling of Roth and how the administration handles protests on campus. The lack of any action by Roth to reduce the chance of a similar response in the future coupled with the fact that those responsible for this unnecessary threat were not reprimanded on further reinforces the administration’s position on protest and free speech. Roth was not responsible for calling the police, but in his position he has a responsibility to protect his student’s right to protest (a duty which he has fumbled in the past with various campus issues).

Codes regulating the rights of student protestors be damned, you do not call the police on your students.

On top of the violation of the right to protest for protestors is the lack of free speech experienced by the workers who are facing poor labor conditions. As stated by an Argus op-ed written by a group of custodians:

“When workers complain and the company disregards our voices, this discourages other workers from coming forward. Custodians have reason to believe that complaining not only won’t alleviate their overwork but could potentially result in retaliation.”

– Wesleyan Argus, May 6th, 2019 (emphasis added)

Although free speech is an issue for students, for custodians it can potentially affect their livelihood. The fact that some fear retaliation for voicing the problems they have with their workloads is very telling of the right to free speech for Wesleyan’s staff.

While this situation is the most recent, this certainly isn’t the only incident in which rights to free speech and protest at Wesleyan were threatened by Roth and the school at large.

Fall 2012: Trustees, Democracy Now! and Chalking

The early 2010s at Wesleyan saw the change of admissions policy from need-blind (in which need for financial aid is not considered in the admissions process) to need-aware (in which it is). This sparked much push back from the student body in various forms of protest.


a video made regarding the issue of policy change to need-aware

One such form of protest was the disruption of a Board of Trustee meeting.

Much of the controversy regarding right to protest came after, once various students were being charged with Student Judicial Board (now known as Code Compliance Board) points. While the entirety of the situation cannot be explained here, students were charged with two charges, “Failure to Comply” and “Department Regulations”.  Neither of which were in the category of “Disruptions”. Two students filed a complaint with the SJB, saying that they should not be charged with what they were charged with due to the actual nature of what occurred, and argued that due to the peaceful nature of the action, it couldn’t be categorized as a disruption. Other students at the time were put on probation for their ResLife jobs. Through this, we can see that even within the context of the CNAC, perceived abuses of the policy by Wesleyan can occur. While not an abuse carried out by Roth, it was foreboding of Roth’s coming interaction with need-blind activism.

As chalking had been banned on Wesleyan’s campus since 2002, an important space of chalking became Wyllys Avenue, a road owned by Middletown and thereby not within Wesleyan’s jurisdiction.

As the chalking occurred, Michael Roth intervened:

“After chalking “Keep Wes Need Blind” on the street, I looked up and saw President Roth escorting Anwar Batte ’13 over towards me holding him by the arm. I thought he was joking around because I didn’t think the president would actually restrain a student in this way, but he proceeded to grab me by the backpack and call over a P-Safe officer. The first thing he said to us was, “You’re already on probation, correct?”, referring to the SJB summons we had received for entering a Board of Trustees meeting in September. Neither Anwar nor I have heard the ruling of our SJB hearing, so we said “Not that we’re aware of.” Roth then passed us along to the P-Safe officer, said, “These students think they can change a financial issue with chalk,” and continued on his way to the soccer field. After Roth left, the P-Safe officer took down our WesIDs, and we told him about how we had been given permission by another officer to chalk in the street.”

– Evan Beider via Wesleying, October 21st, 2012 (emphasis added)


This video shows the tail end of this interaction, as well as students talking about it

In this situation, Roth physically impeded a protest that was legal both by the town of Middletown, as well as by the CNAC, reprimanding them verbally and physically for exercising their right to free speech and protest.

Around a week later, a series of protests took place by a football game in the center of campus. The news organization Democracy Now! covered the event. As the reported attempted to interview Roth regarding need-blind, Roth grabbed the microphone from the reporter and began walking away:

“Wesleyan President Grabs DN! Microphone as Students Protest End to Need-Blind Admissions”

As Roth is questioned by the reporter, he only offers one sentence, repeated twice, regarding the policy change:

“There has been a lot of transparency. There has been a lot of transparency.”

-Michael Roth, October 2012

When confronted about a decision made by his school, when held accountable, Roth was unable to muster up anything beyond seven words. For some reason, whether it be out of aggravation, a need to take or feel some sort of control over the situation, or something else, he decided to take the reporter’s microphone. What better representation of Michael Roth’s true nature regarding free speech than to take a microphone away from a member of the press?

“Give it back to him.” – cop

What do we make of all this?

As mentioned by the op-ed cited earlier, activism is used by Wesleyan as a means of advertisement, made into a commodity. When acts of protest or free speech do not go to serve those means, Roth and the Wesleyan administration do not care as much about its protection. We know this to be true due to the nature of the CNAC, but even in situations of “legitimate” free speech/protest, there is backlash. Roth’s outwardly position of being pro-free speech earns him respect as a public thinker, creating (among centrist/liberal circles of thought) positive public image for himself and his school, while simultaneously aiming to intimidate and even bring force upon those who, while outside the realm of what is allowed by the CNAC, is still peaceful.

“At yesterday’s WesFest event (Wesleyan’s admitted students day), while I spoke with visiting families, about a dozen students held signs and stood on the stage in protest. That was within their rights.

[…]

But students are not free to disrupt events.”

Michael Roth, April 11th, 2019

It was at that “yesterday’s” protest that Michael Roth began talking about protest at Wesleyan, commodifying it to prospective students at that very moment. In authoring “Safe Enough Spaces”, Roth has once again taken free speech and used it for his own benefit. To invoke the idea of safety brought up by students at Roth’s R.J. Julia talk, who are these “safe enough spaces” for? For the safety of students of color, low income students, workers (student or otherwise), or anyone who does potentially face danger in voicing their opinion, or for the safety of the status quo under the guise of a free exchange of ideas, so long as it isn’t blatantly hateful, or, god forbid, challenge Wesleyan itself? Through his and his administration’s actions, Roth has strengthened his public position and brought attention to his school at least in part through the weaponization of “progressive” policies regarding free speech and protest that justify harsh action being brought upon those who are pushing for change.

“If we don’t defend the right to protest in education, we are lost.”

-Michael Roth

I suggest you invest in a compass.

 

Cover photo by Leah Levin Pensler ’20