By Derek Robertson
University of Chicago students recently protested a seminar featuring former Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, stoking political divisions on campus.
The UChicago Institute of Politics held the Wednesday event, which was closed to both the public and the press, at the university’s Quadrangle Club. The Washington Post’s Robert Costa hosted Lewandowski as part of the Institute’s “America in the Trump Era” speaker series. Protesters gathered across the street in the courtyard of the University Church before moving directly onto the club’s lawn after the event began.
J.T. Johnson, a 19-year-old political science student participating in the protests, described Lewandowski’s booking as showing a tolerance for the Trump campaign’s divisive rhetoric.
“I don’t think we should normalize people who reinforce rhetoric like Trump’s,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we should allow any type of endorsement of ideas and beliefs that would end up harming groups of people based solely on their identities.”
Jaclyn Wong, a graduate student affiliated with the anti-Trump activist group UofC Resists, which participated in organizing the protest, pushed back on the Institute’s claim to the defense of free speech in continuing with the event.
“The nature of the event itself discredits the claim that Lewandowski’s appearance is part of a free exchange of ideas in a community of mutual respect,” Wong said in an e-mail. “It is a student-only event that is closed to reporters and inaccessible to anyone who cannot be physically present (not available online, for example). The format itself is an hour-long conversation followed by 15 minutes of Q&A – that does not provide a setting for actual debate.”
Some present were skeptical of the protesters’ criticisms – including Daniel Lifton and Spencer Hyman, two graduate students who waited outside the Quadrangle Club in hopes of getting last-minute tickets to the capacity event.
“To me, there’s a tragic irony to protesters exercising their First Amendment rights to shut down a talk featuring an acclaimed political commentator,” Hyman said in an e-mail. “It’s no longer about convincing, it’s simply about shaming.”
Lifton invoked the reaction to a 2016 letter from the University’s dean of students that placed freedom of expression in direct opposition to the concepts of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”
“It’s funny that we call someone conservative when all they’ve done is release a statement saying that they’re going to protect the First Amendment on campus. It’s a basic principle, but somehow that’s ‘radical,’” Lifton said.
Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois Chicago, described how the University of Chicago could be a uniquely hospitable environment in the city for controversial speakers like Lewandowski.
“At universities like U of C and Northwestern there are some students who are intellectually supportive of Trump’s issues, partly because they come from privileged backgrounds,” Simpson said. “UC has been for some time a fairly strong bastion of conservative ideology in their philosophy and other departments, so it’s not surprising they would host the event.”
The Institute of Politics could not be reached for comment. The next “America in the Trump Era” event will be held on Friday at the university’s International House and feature CNN commentators S.E. Cupp, a conservative Trump critic, and Van Jones, an activist and former Obama aide.