William and Mary students protest ACLU speaker, white supremacy

Contact Reporterwwright@vagazette.com

Last week a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union saw her chance to speak about the First Amendment squashed by students chagrined by the actions of her employer.

Students from a Black Lives Matter chapter at the College of William and Mary interrupted Claire Guthrie Gastañaga — executive director of ACLU Virginia — as she began to speak in the Sadler Center on Sept. 27.

Their issue? Representatives from the organization made it clear in April that they intended to defend the right to free speech for members of the Ku Klux Klan and white nationalists, even if it did not necessarily agree with their views.

In response, students stood in front of Gastañaga and chanted, condemning what they perceived as a shameful defense of white supremacy and of the Klan.

More than a half hour later, Gastañaga left the stage and organizers canceled the event. A video of the protest has been posted to the Black Lives Matter chapter’s Facebook page.

William and Mary president Taylor Reveley lamented the protests in a statement.

“William and Mary has a powerful commitment to the free play of ideas. We have a campus where respectful dialogue, especially in disagreement, is encouraged so that we can listen and learn from views that differ from our own, so that we can freely express our own views and so that debate can occur,” he said. “Unfortunately, that type of exchange was unable to take place Wednesday night when an event to discuss a very important matter — the meaning of the First Amendment — could not be held as planned.”

After the Charlottesville protests in August, ACLU leaders reiterated that they intend to defend the right to protest and the right to free speech for all Americans.

From its Facebook page, the campus’ Black Lives Matter chapter made it clear that it stands at odds with the ACLU and against white supremacy in American society.

“In contrast to the ACLU, we want to reaffirm our position of zero tolerance for white supremacy, no matter what form it decides to masquerade in,” the statement said.

Brian Whitson, the college’s chief communications officer, stressed that the college will continue to have events on campus that touch on what for many students may be uncomfortable topics.

“We must be a campus that welcomes difficult conversations, honest debate and civil dialogue,” he said. “We are reviewing our planning and protocols and taking measures to prevent this from happening again.”

Wright can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343.

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