The second annual #SpeechMatters conference — hosted by the UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 27 — focused on participation and protest on college campuses, but was interrupted by students protesting for a cost of living adjustment, or COLA.
Protesters carrying signs advocating for COLA moved to the front of the audience during UC President Janet Napolitano’s opening remarks, blocking her face from view. Michelle Deutchman, executive director of the UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, came to the stage asking the protesters to move to the sides of the conference venue so they would not block the view of the audience.
“Protest is welcome so long as it doesn’t unduly interfere with the ability of the speaker to deliver the message or the ability of the audience to receive the speaker’s message,” Deutchman said during the conference.
The protesters spoke up periodically during the scheduled events. They returned to the front of the venue during UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman’s talk, with some speaking out about recent arrests of protesters on UC Irvine’s campus.
According to Varsha Sarveshwar, president of the UC Student Association and ASUC external affairs vice president, the protesters were students from multiple UC campuses studying at the UC Washington Center.
“I think there’s this tendency to turn protest into something that’s palatable,” Sarveshwar said. “There’s a lot of praise for protest and activism in principle, but when someone is shutting down an event, it starts to be seen differently.”
The conference also featured a series of panels and speakers on civic participation, speech and protest.
Many speakers discussed complications to the principles of free speech and civic participation. In a panel on protest and disruption on campus, Sandra Rodriguez, director of student engagement at University of Nevada, Reno, said marginalized communities “pay a higher price” for free speech.
Jonathan Schwartz, a founder of Every Vote Counts, said in a panel on student participation in democracy that students are increasingly losing faith in democratic processes and that answering the question “Why should I believe in democracy?” is a challenge for the younger generation today.
The conference was cut short because of the protests, according to Sarveshwar, with the final panel ultimately getting canceled.
“I think it’s sort of appropriate — some might say it’s ironic — that participation and protest has sort of reshaped our agenda today,” Deutchman said during her closing remarks. “But it was the theme of today’s conference, and I think the bottom line is that it can be messy — both participation and protest — but they remain critically important to the smooth functioning of our democracy, and today we had an opportunity to see that live and in action.”