Office of Student Life MS-9105
Western Washington University
516 High Street
Bellingham, WA 98225-5996
Attn: Mr. Sabah Randhawa, President of WWU
Re: Students’ Right to Free Speech and Protest of Jonathon Zimmerman’s Presentation
Dear President Sabah Randhawa:
This is a letter of support for the brave students who stood up to express their political views against the university sponsored speaker, Jonathon Zimmerman, on December 1, 2017. Policies that foster oppression inhibit freedom. We therefore urge you to adopt well-reasoned free speech policies that protect true free speech.
An accurate comprehension of free speech in the context of college campuses is imperative for universities to understand, since free speech on campuses has been under assault by forces whose veiled intent is to curtail diversity of perspectives and impose conservative values over others. Reactionary organizations, like the Federalist Society, have intentionally courted and heavily influenced school policies on free speech across the country for decades. They are intent on transforming laws and educational institutions that have been traditionally fertile ground for the highest scholarship, learning, freedom of thought, and growth into places that places further their own political agendas.
A small group of students at Western Washington University (WWU) attempted to reveal the perniciousness of the Mr. Zimmerman’s interpretation of “free speech.” It seems the administration has unfortunately chosen to dismiss their concerns and instead discipline them. We believe that your decision to discipline the students hurts WWU’s endeavor for higher learning and education.
Free speech and the First Amendment should not be interpreted and implemented in the abstract. The reality is our society is deeply divided into populations of those with wealth and power and those who suffer discrimination and poverty. The divide generally cuts along race and class with members of these communities having less access to participate in their own governance, politically and socio-economically. They have less access and opportunity to spaces where they are invited, heard, or have equitable participation. People of color, trans, queer, and non-binary people’s views are expressed on an unequal playing field. Therefore, giving privileged, relatively well-resourced speakers and positions “equal” access to free speech is not an exercise in promoting equality or free speech. It is a preference. Free speech occurs when realistically everyone has the same opportunities and circumstances to participate. When an institution “equally” supports viewpoints such as Mr. Zimmerman’s or people and groups which threaten and further marginalize certain populations, it is not free speech that a school is promoting.
WWU may view its current decisions as justified, but this view is misguided. Liberal institutions and groups may erroneously think devoting resources to all speech is free speech. Recently, the bastion of liberalism in the U.S., the American Civil Liberties Union, came under attack for their irresponsible defense of white supremacists in Charlottesville to exercise their so-called First Amendment rights which advocated for and resulted in violence and death. In contrast, when a responsible institution of higher education assesses free speech, it should consider the following: 1.) Who is allowed and able to speak? 2.) Under what conditions and with what consequences? 3.) What voices are patently silenced? 4.) What forms of dissent are allowed or not, considering the imposed limitations and discrimination of marginalized people? A university can make a responsible decision about free speech only after diligently analyzing these questions to balance the complexities of our diverse populations.
Under the Trump administration, erosion of free speech has been accelerated, so it is important to bring attention to this issue. We, the Whatcom Civil Rights Project, are concerned about the attacks on our civil rights and how to effectively address them. We recognize that civil rights and free speech are under attack by powerful and reactionary forces which have obfuscated the concept of free speech into an abstract interpretation of it, ignoring its true intent and steering even institutions of higher education away from actually promoting a diversity of ideas, learning and fostering growth on their campuses.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a white man of relative privilege, who is advocating for free speech without the necessary analysis and just balancing. His free speech should not be valued over the free speech of your students, protesting the presentation on December 1st. Even more true, the students were expressing their political speech even though it was not welcomed. They risked their safety and comfort to express their political views. This exemplifies intelligence and knowledge which most likely was learned from and fostered by their university education. The students were rightfully protecting the silencing of marginalized voices. Mr. Zimmerman’s misguided position that free speech should be extended regardless of the violent nature of a group, an individual, or a statement borders on endorsing violence for those who oppose violence and oppression. It is public knowledge that hate groups and xenophobic speakers have a history of inciting violence, and they are often directly associated with hate groups whose tactics include violence and intimidation.
Should a university wait for the outbreak of violence before they act? WWU’s priority in promoting diversity, safety and an environment conducive for the highest learning is laudable. However, to apply First Amendment rights only in concept, without considering the disparate treatment of some student populations and balancing challenges they face hurts the environment that WWU seeks to foster. When institutions do not understand how to protect the First Amendment right to free speech, they will surely lay the path for fascist forces to take hold and destroy it.
Whatcom Civil Rights Project, Attorney and Director
CC: Michael Sledge, WWU Assistant Dean of Students
 How Conservatives Took the Law Back from Liberals, Michael Avery, Danielle McLaughlin https://www.vanderbilt.edu/university-press/book/9780826518774
 “There have been several events canceled or disrupted this year on college campuses due to protests over the viewpoints presented, including events canceled at University of California Berkeley that featured conservative figures Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro.” https://biglawbusiness.com/seattle-law-school-latest-flashpoint-over-campus-speech/
 “But some on the left argue that freedom of speech should not extend to hate speech. Under this view, defending the free speech rights of racists does not, in the long run, strengthen the civil liberties of minority groups.” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/17/nyregion/aclu-free-speech-rights-charlottesville-skokie-rally.html
 National Lawyer’s Guild’s article Free Speech on Campus: A Critical Analysis, Traci Yoder, NLG Director of Research and Education https://www.nlg.org/free-speech-on-campus-a-critical-analysis/
 “A brief review of U.S. law demonstrates that fascist advocacy of violence and genocide can and should be prohibited. In 1969 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brandenburg v. Ohio that there is no free speech right to advocate violence when there is a likelihood that violence will actually occur. The Court traced the development of U.S. law from its earlier prohibition of even abstract teaching of the necessity of violence for accomplishing social change to protecting such speech “except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/06/why-fascist-speech-is-not-free-speech/