Claremont college suspends students who blocked access to event with pro-police speaker

Claremont McKenna College has suspended three students for a year and two others for a semester for blocking access to a campus event to protest a speaker known for defending police against Black Lives Matter activists.

The action, announced last week, arises out of an April 6 demonstration during which students and others ignored temporary barriers and blocked entrances to the Athenaeum and Kravis Center, where author and commentator Heather Mac Donald was scheduled to speak.

Many participants chanted “black lives matter” and “black lives — they matter here.”

At the time, campus officials and security decided not to make arrests or force the estimated 250 protesters to disperse. Instead, Mac Donald spoke before a handful of observers while the college live-streamed the event. Her 30-minute talk also was made available for later viewing.

College President Hiram E. Chodosh quickly vowed to take disciplinary action. It was not an empty threat.

A college investigation included the review of “available video and photographic evidence” and witness interviews to identify 12 Claremont McKenna students as “potential participants in the blockade,” according to the college. Officials ultimately charged 10 students with violations of college policy. Of these, five received the suspensions, two were placed on probation and three were cleared.

The students have not come forward or been publicly identified, but their supporters said the students exercised free speech rights in a non-violent manner. Moreover, officials gave no indication at the time that the students’ status in school would be in jeopardy as a result, they said.

Four of the suspended students were seniors and had their degrees revoked pending completion of the suspensions, actions that affected their ability to compete for jobs that require a college degree, said Nana Gyamfi, co-founder and lead organizer of the L.A.-based group Justice Warriors 4 Black Lives.

Other affected students face the loss of financial aid because of the disciplinary action, which could leave them unable to complete their degree programs, Gyamfi said.

She accused the college of overreacting to a minor incident and of setting up students for discipline through a protest that authorities were fully expecting and prepared for.

“Universities should be places where students learn about the power and limitation of civic engagement and this completely shuts that down with the hot-button issues of our current time,” she said. “You don’t have to be a student to find that concerning.”

In May, nearly 800 signed an open letter to college officials expressing concern over the “criminalization” of the students.

The college has defended its review, saying that “students had an opportunity to be heard, pose questions, ask for further investigation, and raise objections throughout the process.”

The cases were decided by a three-member review panel consisting of a faculty member, another staff member and a student. The findings also reduced the estimated crowd size to 170.

In its statement, the college quoted a past commencement speech of Chodosh: “If we are to cherish free speech, we must support and hear the speech with which we most disagree.”

The election of Donald Trump as president has sparked a wave of campus activism directed at the appearances of outspoken conservatives, especially those supporting Trump. In February, UC Berkeley authorities canceled a speech by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Two hours before Yiannopoulos was to speak, more than 1,500 people had gathered in protest. Some smashed windows and set a small fire.

Mac Donald’s books include last year’s “The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe.” She has criticized the Black Lives Matter movement, whose supporters have denounced her.

Claremont McKenna is one of seven affiliated Claremont Colleges, and the school said it also turned over evidence involving students enrolled at the other campuses. Those schools have announced no plans to take action, but Claremont McKenna has provisionally banned four students from “non-academic” activities on its grounds.

howard.blume@latimes.com

@howardblume

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