When a controversial speaker came to campus earlier this semester, many students called for the University to stop the event. But what can the school actually do? We untangle some questions about ASU and freedom of speech in this special episode of “State Press Play.
KIRSTEN DORMAN: Please note: This episode contains strong language and discussion of sensitive subject matter. Listener discretion is advised.
DORMAN: Friday, September second. Outside Neeb Hall, one of Arizona State University’s biggest lecture halls. The sun is slowly starting to go down, and it looks like it might rain. But there are people gathering outside Neeb, some lining up to receive yellow wristbands and be let inside.
On August 22, College Republicans United announced their plan to host Jared Taylor for a speaking event on campus.
CRU is a student organization at ASU. On their Sun Devil Sync page, they describe the organization’s goals as striving “to develop political skills and leadership among Republican students as preparation for future public service by them to promote paleoconservative ideals and to better the community.”
CRU’s August 22 tweet announcing that Taylor would speak on campus included a link to purchase tickets. The event title: “If We Do Nothing: A Defense of White Identity Politics.”
College Republicans at ASU, a different but similarly named student organization, released a written statement condemning the event. In it, they referred to CRU as a “bigoted, illegitmate splinter group.” They wrote that CRU hosting Taylor was “abandoning their obligations as Republicans and making bedfellows of racists.”
Lee Bebout is an English professor at ASU with expertise in critical race theory.
BEBOUT: Jared Taylor is really well known. He’s somebody that I have read before, somebody that I’ve talked about in my research before.
DORMAN: Bebout was outside Neeb Hall for a couple of hours on September 2.
BEBOUT: I don’t necessarily want to engage in overt protest, as a faculty member. But I teach a class about white supremacy. Shocking: I’m against it.
DORMAN: Instead, Bebout handed out flyers for the class he teaches. In the spring 2023 semester, he’ll teach a version of the class: English 332, “Whiteness.” He says his intention was not so much to advertise the class, as it was …
BEBOUT: – a way of saying, “Hey, there are other perspectives out here.” …And so I went, and Ipassed out flyers for the class, you know, and when people wanted to talk I talked.
DORMAN: Many refer to Taylor as a white supremacist. Bebout says that Taylor may be unlikely to self-identify as one, though.
In their statement, ASU expressed that it allowed CRU to host their event on campus in compliance with the First Amendment and Arizona state law. State law makes it so that the University is open to any speaker a student group invites.
However, another student there that night expressed disappointment in ASU’s overall response to this one.
TAELOR SMITH: And I’m part of a historically Black sorority called Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Incorporated.
DORMAN: That’s Taelor Smith. She says her sorority was founded in 1922, in direct defiance of the KKK.
SMITH: We were founded in the basement of a library with the Grand Wizard of the KKK literally right across the street. So our founders risked their lives to create a safe space for women, but specifically women of color.
DORMAN: And 100 years later, Smith says she’s taking a stand, too.
SMITH: I think it was important that I made my – showed my face, made my presence known, wore my letters. The same letters that my founders fought for. In direct defiance of this event because if I’m being honest, it’s kind of ridiculous.
DORMAN: As far as ASU’s role…
SMITH: People have the right to their opinion. People have the right to speak on that opinion. But when a university gives them an additional platform or a larger platform to speak to not just the student body but the community in which the university lies. It makes me fear for my safety. And it makes me scared for the safety of my peers.
DORMAN: –which Smith says also led her to stand outside Neeb Hall that night.
SMITH: As Black people, we roll together. And we protect each other.
DORMAN: As far as the University protecting Smith and students like her…
SMITH: …when something like this happened, where this individual who they permitted to speak has directly influenced actions against our community or talks about how, how the Black community is detrimental to American populations – it hurts. And it makes me realize that although we’re number one in innovation at ASU, we are not number one in caring for our students.
DORMAN: Smith also brought up the LIFT Initiative. The LIFT Initiative is a 25-point plan that ASU published in September 2020.
University President Michael Crow addressed the ASU community in a letter accompanying the initiative’s launch. He wrote, in part, that ASU would work hard to ensure that “Black students, faculty and staff — and other underrepresented groups and individuals” would have an empowering and welcoming campus experience.
Smith says the initiative alone is not enough to show that ASU cares for its students of color – specifically, its Black students.
SMITH: The whole point of the LIFT Initiative was to ensure that Black students can, really in a more broader sense, minority students were able to have a safe place to learn, be comfortable in their study. And this is directly against that.
DORMAN: The root of the problem on campus goes deeper than allowing Taylor to speak here, according to professor Bebout.
BEBOUT: The problem doesn’t start with Taylor coming to campus. That’s what brings people out. The problem is having the white nationalists student group on campus.
DORMAN: He says the University should consider taking action against CRU as a student organization.
BEBOUT: Five, six, seven years ago, the administration would often say, “Well, you know these Neo-nazis that are protesting on campus they’re. They’re from the community. They’re not from us. They’re not part of ASU.” Well, you know what? These folks are part of ASU.
DORMAN: ASU, Bebout says, should also consider who it wants to include, rather than who it wants to exclude, when defining what its campus community should look like.
BEBOUT: Do we want to hold them up, or do we want to lift up Black, brown, and Indigenous and Asian-american Sun Devils?
DORMAN: For the State Press, I’m Kirsten Dorman.