On April 6th 2017, Heather Mac Donald was scheduled to give her speech "The War on Cops," at the Marion Minor Cook Athenaeum. Approximately, 170 people protested the event, moving past security and barricades to block the entrance. The school identified only 12 of those protesting to be Claremont McKenna students. The vast majority are believed to be students from other Claremont Colleges, though protestors were identified to have been from outside the Claremont Consortium as well. This week, the school has revealed that it will suspend three CMC students for one year, two for a semester, and two more are put on conduct probation.
More than three months after the event, emotions are still running high from the Heather Mac Donald Athenaeum talk. Even during the summer, Claremont McKenna College’s decision to punish seven of its students involved in the protest has rekindled our passions on the matter. Though I believe that Heather Mac Donald’s opinions are heinous, I am not seeking to discuss whether it is the protestors or the free-speech advocates who are on the side of justice, nor do I care to focus on whether Mac Donald’s analysis is correct. Both sides think that they are in the right, and we can squabble on for an eternity about why the other side of the argument is wrong. What I am seeking to determine is if the punishment placed on these seven students can be justified, and given the circumstances, I believe that it cannot. I am appalled at both the morality and the logic of the decision. CMC has sacrificed the futures of seven of its students, harming the institution in the process.
The key point in this discussion is that only twelve of the 170 protesters were recognized as CMC students. Due to consortium policy, less than 7% of the 170 protesters faced punishment. While technically there were four non-CMC students who were “punished,” that was only in regard to privileges at CMC. Those four will (almost certainly) receive no disciplinary action from their own respective colleges. Thus, CMC’s punishments are hardly a deterrent. If the Athenaeum hosts another speaker who holds views that are akin to Heather Mac Donald’s, then the students from the other colleges will once again turn out to protest en masse. Why would they not? They believe that justice is on their side, and there is no incentive for them to stay in the dorms.
"CMC’s decision to punish their own students is far from a deterrent; it’s practically an open invitation to off-campus protestors. "
If CMC is seeking to safeguard its reputation as an institution that upholds the ideal of free speech and serves as a last bastion of conservative politics among our nation’s college campuses, then punishing these students accomplishes nothing. CMC’s reputation has already begun deteriorating, and this action does not do nearly enough to negate that. When the story of the protests was picked up by the national media, there was no mention of the fact that we are in a consortium with four other undergraduate institutions, and that a majority of the protesters came from these other institutions. The only thing that the media picked up on was that the protests occurred at CMC. As a result, we are now regarded by many Americans as being similar to Berkeley and Middlebury in our attitudes towards free speech. If the college seeks to counteract this perception, then it is doomed to fail. Seven students out of 170 is merely four percent. This punishment simply isn’t large enough to make as much news as the institution is hoping––not enough to erase what’s happened. Even if it was to be picked up by the media, they would assuredly repeat their mistake and fail to mention that most of the protesters came from other institutions. The public would see CMC only disciplining a small number, and the perception will be that we are weak. What may look like an impressive show of force to its students looks nothing but weakness to high school seniors who are now considering opting for other colleges.
This is what CMC’s verdict ultimately comes down to: a meaningless political gesture that will not prevent this from happening again, while at the same time, severely damaging the futures of seven students. The punishment that CMC has delivered sets these students up for failure. It will adversely affect their educational goals, and it will severely damage their chances of future employment. And what profit will CMC gain for the damage that it has wrought? None. There will be no deterrent against future protests; to the contrary, this action has pointed out that over 90% of the protesters are effectively untouchable by the school. Even if this story attracts major media attention, it only makes CMC look weak. These punishments are cold and needlessly cruel. CMC should recant its position. I ask everyone on the faculty and staff at Claremont McKenna College to remember a time when they would have gladly broken the rules for an ideal that they believed in. I ask them to please have compassion and forgive the protesters.
Mr. Dail has claimed that Claremont McKenna’s decision to punish its students is morally unjustified and harms the institution. He asserts that the punishment makes Claremont appear weak, will not prevent further protests, and is ultimately an empty gesture. However, while the punishments are by no means a perfect solution and certainly do not entirely rectify the situation the college finds itself in; his assertion would prefer inaction over the beneficial corrective measures the college has enacted with these punishments.
Punishing students found to be in violation of the code of conduct does not reflect weakness on behalf of CMC but rather strength. It is asserted that, “the public would see CMC only disciplining a small number, and the perception will be that we are weak”. This argument attempts to link the small number of students punished to a weak image of Claremont. Suppose we accept this argument at face value; if only disciplining seven students makes Claremont look weak, how would disciplining zero students make them look stronger? In fact, this would be the penultimate weak move by the administration and would hurt the college’s image far more. With many colleges around the country refusing to take any sort of stand against the assault on free expression, Claremont should be lauded for being one of the first to take any demonstrable action against students.
It is also asserted that the punishments, “will not prevent this from happening again”. While these punishments alone will not prevent another protest, it does set a precedent for taking actions against students who break the Code of Conduct and sets an example for the other Claremont Colleges. One of the biggest issues regarding punishment and the protest was the sheer number of protesters that attended a different college in the consortium. The other colleges should work together with Claremont to ensure that a protest of this nature is prevented in the future or to at least commit to punishing students that violate the code of conduct. If Claremont had refused to take any action against its own students, how could it have expected any other college to punish their students? By taking action, Claremont has provided tangible action to back up its requests. If the other colleges in the Consortium refuse to hold their students to any sensible standard of expectations then Claremont has the moral high ground and can begin to put pressure on the other colleges to control their student bodies. The punishments are not a complete solution but they are a step in the right direction.
The punishments handed down by Claremont were described as a, “meaningless political gesture” and, “needlessly cruel”. I contend that the punishments themselves are important but beyond that, the punishments are a matter of principal. Students willingly and enthusiastically broke the student Code of Conduct. If Claremont were to dismiss such flagrant violations of its honor code I would wonder why they would bother having one at all. The college cannot allow its students to run roughshod over its rules without issuing punishment. Justice demands those found guilty be punished. To refuse to do so would be unfair to others punished for violating other rules the college has established. The college must enforce its rules equally without prejudice and without any special treatment. We should demand this to be the case. And therefore, the punishments issued by the Claremont McKenna administration should be welcomed by the student body.
On April 6th, Heather Mac Donald, a pro-police and anti-BLM speaker, was scheduled to speak at the Athenaeum. However, due to protests that blocked the entrance of the Athenaeum, no one could enter, and the event was eventually moved to a live-stream which was cut short. CMC promised to hold those responsible for the disruption accountable. This week they followed through on that promise. After an extensive conduct process, three students were handed one year suspensions, two students were given one semester suspensions, and two others were put on conduct probation. Furthermore, four non-CMC students had their campus privileges suspended. This is, without question, the right decision for the college; it demonstrates their refusal to back down from enforcing the rules fairly and justly. Claremont McKenna, with these punishments, is setting a powerful example to the other Claremont Colleges and to higher education across the country. Students that would actively silence opposing viewpoints are antithetical to the mission of higher education, and in order to preserve the integrity of their institution, such actions must have consequences.
Punishing those who willfully chose to break the code of conduct serves as both a punishment and a warning. It shows the college is committed to enforcing their code of conduct while serving as a deterrent from shutting down the next controversial speaker to come to campus. If Claremont McKenna avoided punishing its students, it would have lost all credibility to its claims of wanting a free and open atmosphere for opinions on campus and would be tacitly endorsing the tactics the protesters used to shut down Heather Mac Donald. Most dangerously, the school would have set a precedent for not punishing their students. If protests continue to grow in size and frequency as they have over the past couple of years, failing to punish students now would have consequences for years to come. Imagine for a moment the situation was reversed. What if the speaker was pro-BLM, anti-cop, and the student protesters were conservative? Imagine if, instead of Heather Mac Donald, one of the other 9 speakers at Claremont McKenna addressing a similar topic last year had been the one to be protested. Claremont students would rightfully be demanding punishment. Yet, it should not matter to students and cannot to the administration what was said or even who said it. We are all deserving free speech. We are all deserving of free expression.
"Regardless of who you are, what you believe, or where you come from, we all deserve and are promised our first amendment rights. Yes—that extends to Heather Mac Donald as well."
Before the punishment was handed down, some students (and over 900 signatories from across the country) were pushing for exoneration. They claimed, “While inflammatory speakers are framed as generating open dialogue on campus, they merely create dangerous campus environments for students of color” . This mindset, the one behind the protest, dangerously confuses disagreement and violence. Operating under this mindset would allow for any viewpoint deemed significantly controversial or “dangerous” to be censured as if debate were akin to fist fights. Dialogue has always been at the base of any great education, it facilitates learning and allows different viewpoints to engage one another––driving innovation, cooperation and understanding. CMC should not only punish the protesters who were the leaders in shutting down Heather Mac Donald, but continue to invite controversial and conservative speakers to campus. We learn when we’re told what we don’t already know; we grow when we confront what we don’t believe. The job of a college is to facilitate that learning and growth, not to be an intellectual shelter.
What happened at CMC is not an isolated event. Other colleges like Middlebury, Berkeley and Evergreen State see themselves facing similar protests and attacks on free expression . They’ve happened at CMC. They’ve happened elsewhere, and if nothing is done, they will only continue. Ultimately, by punishing those involved in shutting down Heather Mac Donald’s speech, Claremont has demonstrated its resolve to justice and doubled down on the idea that free expression on campus is beneficial to all. While the punishments were not light, they were nowhere near as severe as they could have been (expulsion or arrest via police), and by pursuing this middle line, the college demonstrated their process to be firm yet fair to those involved.
Mr. Sweet is suggesting that Claremont McKenna should play the role of the hero and protect the ideals of higher education from those who would assail them. He makes a commendable effort, but the focus of his ire is misplaced. Punishing the protesters doesn’t amount to CMC upholding any mission of free speech or an open atmosphere. The school can hold a forum for diverse opinions while simultaneously catering to the concerns of its students. The two are not mutually exclusive. The Athenaeum has always been committed to hosting speakers who expound on a variety of different topics from a variety of different viewpoints. Many of these speakers are conservative, such as Mitt Romney, Arthur Brooks and Jason L. Riley, the latter of whom spoke on a similar topic to Heather Mac Donald. There is no war on conservatives at Claremont McKenna. Mac Donald was the first Athenaeum speaker to be protested like this, far from the first controversial speaker, and nowhere near the first conservative. The chief grievance of the protesters was that Mac Donald’s presence on campus constituted a direct threat against Black lives. Mr. Sweet says that he is committed to free expression, but there must be a line drawn somewhere. If the Athenaeum hosted a speaker whose topic for the evening was “Genocide is Good,” any sensible person would agree that it would be ludicrous for the speaker to be given a platform, no matter how persuasive their arguments were. Regardless of if this imaginary speaker had a book or data, there are basic topics that we—as decent humans—should never entertain. That is the line this dispute is about. This is a debate between those who believe that Mac Donald’s presence constituted a threat to Black lives, and those who do not believe that. Claremont McKenna can remain committed to bringing in speakers from across the political spectrum, while also having a conversation with students about where the line should be drawn, and why.
On its FAQ page about the matter, when CMC was asked “Could students have reasonably concluded that the blockades of entrances and exits of College buildings were permissible as a proper exercise of their rights to free speech and protest?” It simply responded with “No.”  Since no other explanation is provided, it must have been exceedingly clear to the protesters that they were placing their reputations at stake. Though many people think that their position on where the line should be drawn in this debate is ridiculous, this cause is clearly important to the protesters. I have clearly demonstrated that these punishments will be ineffective if they are carried out. While the punishments could have been worse, things can always be worse. A year or even a semester of suspension is much harsher than Mr. Sweet lets on, and the school’s decision will severely and perversely affect the futures of these seven students. In light of all of this, I want to ask both CMC and Mr. Sweet again, in your eyes, should standing for what you believe in beget such a severe punishment? Try to place yourself in their shoes, and think about it.
Sources and Notes
Featured image by Jenifer Hanki (staff writer).