More than 140 protesters who attended a lecture by anti-Muslim and "anti-jihadist" author and blogger Robert Spencer staged a walkout on Tuesday night at Stanford University.
The protesters, who have blasted university administrators for allowing the controversial speaker and author of the "Jihad Watch" blog to lecture on campus, filled the 250-seat Geology Corner Auditorium to capacity, causing at least 50 people to be turned away. About 25 minutes into Spencer's talk, the protesters quietly rose and filed out of the auditorium, leaving an estimated 20 people to remain who had come to hear Spencer speak, the protesters said.
Hundreds more stood outside the adjacent Mitchell Earth Sciences library for an event dubbed, "Stanford Against Spencer: A Rally Against Islamophobia." They chanted against what they said is hate speech that has no place on the Stanford campus. They were most upset that the university has given a "hatemonger" a platform using thousands of dollars of student funds, they said.
The protesters and those who came to hear Spencer speak about "Jihad and the Dangers of Radical Islam," agreed that free speech is important, but they had somewhat differing views on the dividing line between hate speech and free speech.
Perhaps the harshest words came from Spencer and the Stanford College Republicans, the student group who sponsored the event.
Stanford College Republicans financial officer John Rice-Cameron declined to comment prior to the event. He referred to the protesters as "fascists" as he explained to those who were not admitted that the seats might open again after the protesters left.
Spencer also called the protesters "fascists," a sentiment he repeated on his Twitter account after the lecture ended.
"Not surprising that Left-fascist ... would support the foreclosure of discussion at Stanford. Fascists do love their fascism, and fear the free and open exchange of ideas above all this," he wrote.
Spencer also accused the Stanford administration of hampering his lecture.
"I was sort of allowed to speak. @Stanford administrators made sure I didn't have an audience, preventing people who wanted to attend from coming in after the fascists left. Clearly @Stanford is no place for those who dissent from the accepted line," he tweeted on Wednesday.
Of the protesters, he wrote, "They refused to consider opposing views. They deliberately filled the seats so that those who wanted to attend could not. That's forcible suppression of dissent, or in a word, fascism."
Protesters who filed out of the building said they chose to stage a walkout at the lecture in as non-disruptive of a fashion as possible. According to Stanford Politics, a nonpartisan news magazine, and student newspaper Stanford Daily, some protesters claimed they were grabbed or kicked by others in the audience as they left the building. A video provided to Stanford Politics shows a person grabbing a student as he was leaving and pulling him down.
Some members of the Stanford College Republicans claimed they were also grabbed outside the venue in a confrontation with a small group of hooded individuals wearing bandanas after the lecture. Some witnesses said the altercation was verbal with each group calling the other Nazis, according to the Stanford Daily and Stanford Politics. But overall, the event was peaceful.
Chase Davis, a protest organizer with the Black Student Union Political Action Committee, said he and others did not see taking up the seats as an obstruction of Spencer's right to free speech. Spencer was free to speak and say anything he wanted to say; the protesters were making their voices heard by taking up space and then silently walking out.
"We wanted to suck the air out of the room," he said.
For black students, speech that attacks one group is personal and opens the door to hate toward black students as well, he added.
"If we allow one group to be attacked on campus it opens the door to all to be attacked. What separates hate speech from expressing an opinion is if you say something that attacks a group or person and has a negative impact. Separate political beliefs contribute to free speech, but when we attack people of a certain group, that's not OK," he said.
Other students and speakers said they were there to support the Muslim community. If Stanford is an all-inclusive place, as the university claims it to be, it should not invite a speaker who promotes language that singles out one group and makes them feel unsafe, they said.
"The emotional wellbeing of our Muslim community is a priority," said a female who identified herself as Mariela, a member of the Stanford Sanctuary Now coalition, said. "We hold all administrators responsible for even allowing this event to take place."
Some in attendance said they came out of curiosity; others said they were there to support free speech.
"I've never heard him encourage hatred or violence. He is exposing a lot of information and it's disturbing a lot of people," said Colin Montelongo, a Santa Rosa resident and student at Sonoma State University who was one of the few non-Stanford students to get a ticket to hear Spencer.
"Robert Spencer is trying to facilitate a discussion about a really controversial topic. The whole controversy around it is shocking. They are discrediting a man and his works and the conversation he is trying to project to thoughtful people. Emotional reactions are so judgmental and condemning. It seems like an overreaction and is fear based. People are blanketing it as hate speech and making attributions to him that are unfounded."
Asked about the dividing line between hate speech and free speech, Montelongo was more circumspect.
"In one sense, speech that does incite violence is probably inappropriate, but I don't have a comment on the dividing line between hate speech and free speech," he said. "Free speech is important and it's a slippery slope."
Montelongo said Spencer is presenting information for people to think about and challenge the status quo.
"In essence what he is doing is challenging an ideology that is antithetical to the Constitution of the United States. They (protesters) want to cling to multiculturalism and ... the fundamental ideologies of different religions," but Spencer is making an argument that Islam is a political ideology, he said.
Larry Estavan, who attended the talk, said he likes that Spencer is concerned about the erosion of free speech.
"Hate speech as a concept seems very subjective," he said. "It's important for the community to come together just to listen." He noted that he did not feel threatened at Stanford, but that at Berkeley the mood was much more hostile.
Stanford student Mary Manion said she had not planned to attend Spencer's lecture, but hearing that there would be protests changed her mind. She came out to support free speech. The event's organizers did not pose the lecture as threatening or aggressive, she said.
"I think certain issues become far too one-sided on this campus," she added, specifying the last election season, noting that far too many people made assumptions about political views that not all students held.
Kory Gaines, a Stanford freshman who was protesting Spencer's presence, said that he did not think Spencer had credibility as a speaker.
"It would be different if his background was as an expert," but Gaines said he was concerned that Spencer talks as if he is an expert in Islam, but he is not.
"I feel that hate speech is something that's directly harmful to someone. If you are harming someone else through your speech, I don't think it's free. If you take away somebody's identity and humanity, then it's not free speech. Hateful speech does not deserve legitimacy," he said.