Students at Vassar College were targeted with posters displaying pictures of their faces after hosting Cornell Law professor William Jacobson for a talk about free speech on college campuses. The posters claimed that these students support "hate speech" and encouraged other students to approach them and “tell them what you think.”
Jacobson’s speech took place on Oct. 25 and was titled "Hate Speech is Still Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville." Just the announcement of the event incited a huge uproar, which only gained steam once Jacobson made it to campus. While students expectedly protested the event, no one foresaw that Vassar students would be individually targeted for hosting the professor and deemed supporters of hate speech.
Pietro Geraci, chapter president of the Vassar College Libertarian Union, or VCLU, said that Healing 2 Action, or H2A, a student organization at Vassar, “manufactured a mass hysteria, claiming that we were bringing in a neo-Nazi white supremacist to endorse hate speech.” According to Geraci, this led to the widespread speculation that the Vassar College campus would become ground zero for a Charlottesville 2.0 — referring to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. in August where protesters and counter-protesters violently clashed, resulting in one death.
H2A, however, has condemned the posters individually targeting the libertarian students.
“It has come to our attention that posters targeting members of the VCLU have been hung up in buildings around campus. We condemn these posters as absolutely antithetical to the values of Healing to Action. Our priority is always the safety of all members of this community, and these concerns extend to every student, including VCLU members. Posters that endanger members of our community are unacceptable,” reads a Facebook statement by H2A.
Jacobson said in an email to the Washington Examiner that there never was any reason for any member of the Vassar community to worry about his appearance. “I came to engage in a dialogue on the tension between First Amendment free speech rights and a campus desire that everyone feel comfortable,” he said.
H2A provided safe spaces and support teams for students who felt threatened by Jacobson’s speech, calling it a platform for neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The library was designated as a safe space and provided "coloring books, zine kits, markers, construction paper etc.,” per a campus email.
One significant aspect of the controversy was a change of event title, which stemmed from a discrepancy between the title used to get institutional funding and the title advertised around campus. The title, "Hate Speech is Still Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville," was used to advertise to the student body, but the title submitted to and approved by the Vassar Student Association was less controversial.
The student association tried to cancel the event due to the discrepancy by pulling funding. They also cited Jacobson’s past works and characterized his agenda as anti-minority and white supremacist.
Geraci says the student association executive board “endorsed the hysteria by sharing H2A's research with the entire student body and asking college President Elizabeth Bradley to cancel the event.”
The student association did not respond to the Washington Examiner’s request for comment.
Bradley refused to cancel the event, however, and released a statement expressing her hope that Vassar College “can be a campus where we think about how our words will affect others and where principles of equity and inclusion underpin our actions.” Not only did Bradley refuse to shut down the speech, but Geraci says she also “set up a security detail” at the speaker's request and “advertised the event to the entire school.”
According to Jacobson, “Almost 300 students were able to listen to what I had to say for 45 minutes, and then engage in a dialogue with me for another 120 minutes. Those students would have been deprived of this educational opportunity if the student activists had their way.” He also wrote an op-ed about his experience which was published in USA Today.
Nearly 100 protesters wore all black clothing and stood in the back of the event as a symbol of support for those who felt threatened by Jacobson’s presence.
According to Jacobson, “anyone – from the Left or the Right – who seeks to defend First Amendment free speech rights [on campus] faces a likelihood of being attacked.” He concluded, “Students who want to engage the campus on free speech issues need to make clear that it is not a partisan issue, it’s an issue of freedom for everyone.”
Jordan Setayesh is student at the University of California, San Diego. He is a YAL media ambassador, does signal transduction research at Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, is co-founder of the volunteer organization San Diego Health Connect, and volunteers at Palomar Medical Center.