Score One for Campus Speech! Students Jeer Peers Who Disrupted Visiting Lecturer’s Defense of the First Amendment

video screenshot of six students holding signs and protesting in a college lecture hall, while others -- including the visiting speaker -- look on.
Students disrupted Jonathan Zimmerman's speech at Western Washington U., decriying the professor's "dangerous deference to free speech" (video screenshot via the Western Front)
When students at Western Washington University started railing against a visiting professor who'd come to lecture about free speech, their peers in the audience protested right back.

If Saturday Night Live were to do a cold open lampooning today’s crop of campus radicals and their intolerance for First Amendment-friendly campus speech, it might look something like the disruption that greeted Jonathan Zimmerman before his December 1 lecture at Western Washington University, a public institution of higher learning in Bellingham.

A professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to KnowZimmerman eventually delivered his talk, “Censorship and Free Speech on College Campuses in the Age of Trump.”

But not until he and his audience endured a genteel disruption at the hands of campus lefties — and turned the tables on the demonstrators, rebuking their rudeness.

Color head shot of Jonathan Zimmerman, a member of the faculty of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania
Professor Jonathan Zimmerman says the demonstration that disrupted his free-speech lecture provided a valuable object lesson in free speech. (via University of Pennsylvania)

Judging from reports in the student paper, the Western Front, and another student publication, the AS Review, the uprising was more Keystone Kops than Baader-Meinhof Gang.

A group of seven WWU students stood up in front of the crowd, some of them holding cardboard signs that read “Advocating for the right to racist, sexist and transphobic speech is violent,” and “Your safe space is violent.”

The professor who was endeavoring to introduce Zimmerman told the students they were being inappropriate. But they shrugged him off, and a woman identified as Emmaline Bigongiari commenced to recite a 14-minute jeremiad about how Zimmerman is a bigot, a sexist, and worse because he has defended the First Amendment rights of offensive individuals to speak when they’re invited to a state-run university or college.

Zimmerman, Bigongiari said, “has repeatedly defended the rights of bigots to speak on campuses and has defended hate speech.”

The professor’s unforgivable sin: op-eds in the New York Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer that take students to task for trying to silence controversial speakers such as alt-right troll Milo Yiannopolous.

Not that Zimmerman agrees with clowns like Yiannopolous. It’s clear from anyone who reads his writings that he’s basically an old-school liberal of the Clarence Darrow variety, who happens to believe in social justice and freedom of speech.

But Bigongiari insisted that Zimmerman defends “the rights of racist, transphobic, and sexist people,” and that it was the responsibility of students not to allow such “oppressive ideologies to have space on their campuses.”

Zimmerman’s mere presence made them feel “unsafe, unwelcome, and not valued,” another woman, identified as Lee Alder, read aloud, taking over from Bigongiari about halfway through.

(It’s worth noting that the university itself, and not a campus group, sponsored Zimmerman’s lecture.)

Afterward, a group called Students for Anti-Racist Action posted the text of Bigongiari’s rant to Google Docs and cell-phone footage of the insurrection to its Facebook page, WWU Students for Anti-Racist Action.

But this was not merely yet another instance of social-justice warriors orchestrating a First Amendment smackdown.

Video of the demonstration clearly shows that students who came to hear Zimmerman speak expressed their displeasure at the interruption.

Attendees can be heard catcalling almost from the start.

At one point, Bigongiari claimed that Zimmerman “peddles the often-repeated narrative that college students are overly sensitive, special snowflakes.”

To which someone in the audience yelled, “You’re proving him right!”

Shouted another: “Go back to your safe space!”

At another juncture, the woman who took over from Bigongiari asked, “What are the skills that Professor Zimmerman has to offer, other than dangerous deference to free speech?”

Came the caustic reply from a woman in the audience, to laughter and applause: “Well, you won’t let him speak — how would you know?”

The proceedings achieved what was perhaps the height of absurdity when an unseen man was heard practically begging the protesters to desist.

“I came to this talk to listen to Dr. Zimmerman and actually challenge him,” he said. He promised the students that if they put a cork in it, he would debate it out with Zimmerman in the question-and-answer session after the lecture.

While the man was speaking his piece, one of the protesters stepped up and said, “Can I ask you not to interrupt this–?”

The remainder of his query was drowned out with hoots and hollers.

But the audience did allow the group to finish, and even gave them some applause as they left.

As they departed, Zimmerman could be seen on the video approaching each one to shake hands.

When Front Page Confidential caught up with him by phone, the professor explained that he wanted to shake hands to show them he isn’t an “ogre.”

Zimmerman said he found the entire episode fortuitous. He explained that he went on to use the incident in his remarks, which you don’t get to watch on the students’ video.

“Afterwards, several people asked me if these people were plants, and if I had asked them to come and do this,” he said. “Which I thought was hilarious. And incidentally, I did not. Let’s be clear.”

Zimmerman said he’d never been confronted this way, though he has had people walk out on him or vehemently argue with him after a talk.

Overall, he said he was “pleased” with the way things went, despite the disruption. He said he’s grateful that the students didn’t attempt to stop him from speaking, and he was happy to see how little traction they gained with their rant.

Then again, while the audience appeared to want to hear what Zimmerman had to say, those who left comments beneath the protesters’ Facebook video overwhelmingly seemed to agree with the proposition that “hate speech” is not protected by the First Amendment.

Which, of course, it is, and which, of course, is why Zimmerman defends it.

Zimmerman said he sees parallels to what transpired over the past year at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where students eventually began to reject the takeover of classrooms by their protesting peers.

He believes that we may have reached a turning point on campuses when it comes to left-wing “bullies” who push the idea that “hate speech” is the same as violence and that people have to be protected from it.

“The vast majority of people on campuses don’t agree with them, but they haven’t stood up to them,” he said. “And what I think you saw at Western Washington University was people standing up to them.”

Click here to follow the Western Front on Twitter, and click the link below to read Emma Agte’s account of the demonstration:

“Free Speech Advocate Lecture Draws Student Protest”

Click here to follow the AS Review on Twitter, and click the link below to read Gwen Frost’s story about the demonstration:

“Professor, Protesters Discuss Free Speech on Campus”

Below, watch video of the demonstration that was posted to the WWU Students for Anti-Racist Action‘s Facebook page:

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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