The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

All the way down the slippery slope at Cal State Northridge


I keep thinking back to the appalling incident last month at California State University at Northridge (CSUN), where the Armenian Youth Federation, shouted down a visiting speaker, award-winning military historian George Gawrych. From the Cal State Northridge Sundial reports:

Scholar George Gawrych got through no more than five sentences during his presentation on his book about Turkish army officer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk before students raised their voices in protest Thursday at the Aronstam Library in Manzanita Hall.

Over 20 protesters stood up from their seats, turned their backs on Gawrych and repeatedly chanted "Turkey guilty of genocide" and "genocide denialist."

Gawrych waited briefly as other attendees voiced their opinions to let him speak, until he began walking up and down the aisle trying to get the [protesters] to face him.

Two police officers who guarded the entrance escorted Gawrych, a Baylor University Boal Ewing chair of military history, out of the library to sounds of chanting protesters.

CSUN professor Owen Doonan had "invited Gawrych to speak for the Middle Eastern Islamic Studies program." Gawrych's book, "The Young Ataturk: From Ottoman Soldier to Statesman of Turkey," won one of the Society for Military History 2014 Distinguished Book Awards. And yet it turns out that even a faculty-invited scholar with impressive credentials isn't allowed to speak at CSUN.

As I noted back in November, naturally, no speaker should be shouted down this way, whether he wrote an award-winning book or not—but the stature of Gawrych's work is just a reminder of how deeply the movement to suppress speech has spread at American universities. Every so often, when I defend student speech at universities, or faculty speech outside the faculty's field of expertise, people object to say that "academic freedom" is all about protecting academics speaking at academics. I don't think that's right; I think that open debate at universities, including open academic debate, requires protecting nonexpert speech as well as expert speech. But here I don't need to talk about such indirect effects: Here, a leading scholar in the field was shouted down.

And, as best I can tell, this was done without any attempt by the university to protect the scholar's ability to speak, or to punish students who shouted Gawrych down. CSUN security was present, and ushered Gawrych out of the talk when (in the school's words) "a talk by visiting Professor George Gawrych was cancelled in the interest of public safety when it was determined that the event could not go on due to the student protest." But, as best I can tell, they didn't try to eject the protesters instead.

When I asked CSUN what the school has done in the wake of this, they said that they had orally "re-stated the university's commitment to free expression in several settings, including to students and during a recent campus town hall. As appropriate, future events will include expectations regarding speech and student conduct, as well as potential consequences [of] violating the student conduct code." I asked if there were any written statements that CSUN had distributed about this, and was told there weren't any. CSUN had also invited Gawrych to come back for another talk, an invitation that he understandably declined.

When students shouted down an Israeli ambassador at the University of California at Irvine, the result was a criminal prosecution and conviction; even in the absence of that, I think university disciplinary measures would be possible. (The CSUN Student Code of Conduct forbids "Willful, material and substantial disruption or obstruction of a University-related activity or any on-campus activity," and authorizes "student discipline" for such behavior.) To my knowledge, no measures have been taken at CSUN. I expect that itself sends a pretty strong message, which is unlikely to undermine any statements at "future events" about "expectations regarding speech and student conduct."

I also got this letter from Arev Hovsepian from the Armenian Youth Federation defending the actions of those who shouted down Gawrych. I think my post, and my original post, speak for themselves on the merits, but let me just note some items you can watch for in Hovsepian's report. The students who shout down the speaker, physically preventing him from being heard, are labeled mere "protesters." That Gawrych "explicitly stated"—not in the speech, but in an earlier interview—"that he prefers the term 'massacres' over 'genocide'" is given as a reason to justify suppressing his speech. (Some broader context from that article: "He said he prefers 'massacre,' which he considers a more powerful term, to describe the conditions that allowed for violence without repercussions. 'We need better terms,' Gawrych said. 'With 'ethnic cleansing,' you don't feel the human agony, do you?'")

That a lecture is supposedly "deplorable" is reason to shut it down. Likewise when it supposedly "objectif[ies]" Armenian students—what does that even mean here?—"present[s] falsified, one-sided views," and "add[s] hostility to [the students'] campus climate." All the modern tropes of university speech suppression, all in there.

In his recent piece, Eugene Volokh expressed his concern for the "suppression of free speech" of a scholar whose lecture was heavily protested by the Armenian-American community. However, Volokh fails to provide a comprehensive and contextual look at the occurrence. Through these protests, Armenian students countered the glorification of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a man who was responsible for the deportations and ethnic cleansing of their ancestors by peacefully protesting a lecture given by an Armenian Genocide denier. Given the context, the actions taken by these students are hardly unreasonable or worthy of condemnation.

Volokh paints George Gawrych as being an "award-winning scholar" with "impressive credentials." If Volokh's predominant argument was one in support of freedom of speech no matter how ludicrous a position, then why would Gawrych's credentials be relevant? Volokh's positive depictions serve only to sway the neutral reader to assign more value to Gawrych's position. The "award-winning scholar" Volokh refers to is in fact a denier of the Armenian Genocide; as evidenced by his comments in an article in the Waco Tribune-Herald. Gawrych explicitly stated that he prefers the term "massacres" over "genocide" when referring to what he describes as killing on both the Armenian and Turkish sides. His failure to acknowledge the premeditated, systematic annihilation of Armenians is directly in line with the denialist position of the Republic of Turkey.

Gawrych's lectures were part of "Ataturk Week," a series of events organized by the Turkish Cultural Foundation (TCF), Association of Turkish Americans of Southern California (ATASC), and Ataturk Monument in Los Angeles (ATAMLA). The events were not planned or sponsored by academic institutions, and none of these organizations has any affiliation with the universities where these lectures were held. In fact, these organizations have directed racial slurs towards the Armenian community, even referring to it as the "Diaspora Armenian Hatred Machine." The not-so-subtle propaganda promoted by these events, coupled with one of them being hosted at the university with the largest population of Armenian students outside Armenia, only adds insult to injury. Would Mr. Volokh and like-minded individuals so passionately condemn students if they protested against a Holocaust denier or a white supremacist being hosted by a Neo-Nazi organization in support of Hitler and his leadership? It seems obvious that any reasonable person would find such a lecture offensive and deplorable.

The protesting of these lectures was rooted in the objections against the glorification of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a leader who instituted a social engineering campaign that instilled a fervent nationalist ideology in the modern Turkish republic. Ataturk's brand of nationalism became an example for totalitarian regimes, including Adolf Hitler and the Weimar-era far right. The Nazi Party was modeled after the Turkish Nationalist Movement, so much so that Hitler referred to Ataturk as his "shining star."

While the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), predecessor to Ataturk's modern republic, was responsible for the initial planning and execution of the Armenian Genocide, Ataturk's regime continued it. Though the CUP leadership was found guilty of their crimes against humanity in Turkish military courts, Ataturk later offered amnesty to the perpetrators who switched allegiance to his government. Ataturk also planned the final deportations of Armenians and Greeks out of the Republic of Turkey as a final attempt to rid Turkey of its last remaining pockets of non-Turkic minorities.

It is important to note that Volokh failed to disclose in his piece that he is an Academic Affiliate of Mayer Brown, a law firm that has loyally represented both the Republic of Turkey itself and its interests in cases involving Armenian Genocide reparations. While we are not suggesting that Volokh's views on this issue are a direct consequence of this affiliation, it is rather unsettling that he did not reveal this information in an article so heavily focused on Armenian-Turkish relations.

At this critical juncture in history, it's incredibly important to encourage youth activism and commend student efforts to stand against injustice. Simply writing off the acts of these students and accusing them of comprising "the new suppression ideology" is an intimidation tactic to prevent students from taking a stand. Contrary to what is stated in Volokh's comments, student views do not comprise the lowest rung on the ladder of opinions. Students have a right, if not a duty, to influence the discourse at their university. If they believe that an event is going to objectify them, present falsified, one-sided views, and add hostility to their campus climate, they have every right to protest it, just as these students did.

Of course, it's not surprising that some activists in a movement would want to shout down rival views, and would defend such behavior. The shocking thing is that CSUN has apparently allowed it to happen, with total impunity.

(As to the Mayer Brown firm's representation of Turkey, the firm is a worldwide firm that has probably virtually every major company and many governments as clients; I didn't work on any of their cases where they represented Turkey, nor was I even aware that they had represented Turkey. But in any event, both this post and my original one are about academic freedom, regardless of whether the speech is about the founder of modern Turkey, the founder of Israel, the founder of the USSR, the founder of the Communist regime in Cuba, or the founders of the United States.)