President of William and Mary responds after BLM disruption of ACLU talk; promises no more fracases

As I reported on October 5, the students of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organization at The College of William and Mary, my undergraduate alma mater, shut down a talk by Clair Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. Ironically, the topic of her talk was “Students and the First Amendment.”

The BLM students not only disrupted the talk by chanting and holding up signs in front of the room, but also prevented students from approaching Gastañaga, forming a ring around her after the talk was stopped so that nobody could approach her.

That was an unconscionable violation of free speech, and it irked me even more because it happened at my own school, a school I loved and where I benefited immensely from the give-and-take that occurred in the classroom. So I wrote the the following email to College President Taylor Reveley (I pulled rank a bit with my status, just to show that I was serious):

From: Jerry Coyne
Sent: Thursday, October 5, 2017 10:17 AM
To: Taylor Reveley
Subject: Disruption of ACLU talk at William and Mary

Dear President Reveley,

As an alum of your college (class of 71, valedictorian), I am deeply concerned that the Black Lives Matter organization at William and Mary was allowed to disrupt a speech by the ACLU, apparently without consequences.

I am a big free speech advocate, and while BLM has every right to protest peacefully, or issue counterspeech, they do not have the right to stifle speech or prevent talks from going on, as happened the other day at my school.

I see you have issued a statement in defense of the ACLU, which is good, but I am wondering if you are going to take any action to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Will the protestors, who are easily identifiable, be sanctioned? If they’re not, then this kind of thing will keep happening.

Jerry Coyne
Emeritus Professor
Dept. Ecology and Evolution
The University of Chicago

President Reveley responded yesterday:

Jerry, thanks for being in touch.  We are moving heaven and earth to prevent any such disruption again.  We are also making clear that a repeat performance will not be allowed to succeed, and there will be significant disciplinary consequences for anyone who attempts it.


Well, I hope he’s doing what he said, and if he does, well, good for him!


  1. GBJames
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 8:39 am | Permalink


  2. Jimbo
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Bravo Jerry! Very direct and succinct letter.
    This is precisely the tactic that should be sweeping colleges and universities across the US: influential and impeccably credentialed professors and expert educators should be writing to schools where this deplatforming nonsense is occurring and making this case.

    The students can have their voice but so can the qualified authorities on education and Constitutional law. School administrators need to stop fearing kids and their misplaced tantrums and assert the academic principles of a university by penalizing students who engage in such tactics.

  3. Posted October 10, 2017 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    I shall continue to breath…

  4. Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  5. Randy schenck
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Good show. I heard a brief interview with Howard Schultz from Starbucks and he made an important comment. We should not be identified by what goes on in Washington DC or by the behavior in DC. The same is true of the bad behavior on campus with the lousy definition of free speech.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 11, 2017 at 4:13 am | Permalink

      What was the context of Schultz’s comment? By “we”, did he mean US brands franchised overseas?

      I can quite imagine that when the Orange One makes a derogatory comment about some foreign country or other, quintessential US brands such as Starbucks or MacDonalds or KFC might notice a falling-off in custom in their regional franchises.

      Or have I got the picture quite wrong?


  6. Steve Bracker
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    “Will the protestors, who are easily identifiable, be sanctioned?”

    I note that this question seems not to have been addressed by President Reveley, unless sanctioning is somehow subsumed within the moving of heaven and earth. It seems to me that imposing some kind of penalty for acts already committed, and publicity thereof, would support the admirable objectives of both specific and general deterrence of this kind of appalling behavior, that strikes at the heart of what a university ought to be.

    • Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      Yes, I noticed. I suppose that if there aren’t any rules in existence (and that’s common), then it might be seen as overly punitive to sanction students in the absence of regulations, though there are always codes of conduct that might cover it. At any rate, so long as they make a new rule and enforce it, I’m satisfied.

    • Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      At least Revely sounds more decisive than George “I have to pee” Bridges.

      • BJ
        Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:55 am | Permalink

        I love that Jerry has made that nickname stick on this site.

    • tony walters
      Posted October 10, 2017 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      There must be penalties. And more than a slap on the wrist.

      Our President called for football players to be fired when they disrespected the flag and our troops. Our President should also call for these students to be expelled from the school. I hope this he will weigh in on this matter soon.

  7. Liz
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    “‘We are also making clear that a repeat performance will not be allowed to succeed, and there will be significant disciplinary consequences for anyone who attempts it.'”

    This is good.

  8. Randy schenck
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Yes, not having rules of conduct while on campus grounds seems like a real lack of thought by a school’s administration. To not have one is almost criminal. Mine would include the prohibition of any guns for starters and no actions to disrupt any formal assembly…

  9. Craw
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Bravo sir.

  10. rich lawler
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Good on you!

    Even a cursory visit by those disruptive students to the ACLU website or Wikipedia would reveal that the ACLU has assisted with every major civil rights case in the US: defending conscientious objectors in WW1, defending political “radicals” and union organizers in the early 1920s, assisting with the Scopes trial in Tennessee, and on and on, including fighting for the rights of women, students, poor people, prisoners, homosexuals, native Americans, etc.
    [summary above taken from The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court]

    Clearly this is an organization that is evil and should be banned from speaking on a presumably liberal campus…(rolls eyes).

    • Posted October 10, 2017 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      So true. As was described here a while ago, it is through allowing ‘dangerous’ speech to be heard that we have advanced civil rights in the past. Even airing views that are generally seen as hateful demonstrably has advanced public consciousness against those views, leading to real social and legal change.

  11. mordacious1
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    This kind of behavior is commonplace on university campuses throughout the US. Why wouldn’t a university take preventive measures before this happens? A university president should just assume these disruptions will occur and be prepared for them.

    • Posted October 10, 2017 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      Commonplace? It is occurring with distressing regularity but is it really commonplace on our campuses today?

      • mordacious1
        Posted October 11, 2017 at 1:33 am | Permalink

        I’d say it’s common enough for ALL universities to have policies in place BEFORE this behavior occurs. Right now, there’s no excuse for university administrators not to be aware that this is happening and to put preventive policies in place.

  12. Frank Bath
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Well done Jerry, let’s hope you don’t have to stand up for free speech there again.

  13. Heather Hastie
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Good on you Jerry. Well done.

    Hopefully they’ll now put into place something like what UoC has for speech.

  14. Curtis
    Posted October 10, 2017 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    There is no need for any university rules because the actions were illegal. In Virginia, a person is guilty of disturbing the peace if he/she “disrupts any funeral, memorial service, or meeting of the governing body of any political subdivision of this Commonwealth or a division or agency thereof, or of any school, literary society or place of religious worship, if the disruption (i) prevents or interferes with the orderly conduct of the funeral, memorial service, or meeting”

    I am pretty sure a crime on campus gives him the ability to take severe action against the students. IMO, he should ask the police to procecute.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 11, 2017 at 4:30 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure that’s right. Aside from funerals and memorial services (not applicable), that seems to refer only to meetings *of the governing body* of various institutions. Though one could argue about the significance of comma placement.


  15. Posted October 10, 2017 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    We are also making clear that a repeat performance will not be allowed to succeed, and there will be significant disciplinary consequences for anyone who attempts it.

    So, no consequences for this incident. Maybe President Reveley has put them on double secret probation.

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