LSU Chancellor Michael Martin Must Distance Himself and LSU from the Mob Attacking Benjamin Haas
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On May 11, LSU student Benjamin Haas elected not to burn a flag as part of a peaceful protest, as he had planned. Instead, he hoped to make a statement. Hundreds of LSU students shouted him down, made death threats, screamed obscenities and hate speech, and threw objects at him. He had to be escorted from campus by police who feared for his safety and has essentially gone into hiding. You can see the mob in action at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NegoiuF_FgA&feature=player_embedded#at=14
LSU Chancellor Michael Martin subsequently released what strikes many as a profoundly tone-deaf and insufficient response, saying “This is what a flagship university, and Free Speech Alley, is all about – good civil discourse, dialogue between all parties and discussions of diverse opinions. This is how students learn from each other and grow as people. I also thought today brought out a wonderful display of patriotism among the students conducting the counter-protest.”
In reality, the mob mentality on display on the LSU campus was anything but civil discourse or patriotism. What LSU students and the academic community nationwide learned on that parade ground was that some students at LSU would resort to violence and intimidation to shout down one of their fellow citizens. The actions of that mob, however, did not reflect the whole of the university, long a flag-ship institution with extraordinary faculty and students. But when Chancellor Martin offered his observation celebrating the "counter protest" and characterizing the actions of this mob as "a wonderful display of patriotism," he offered his seal of approval, as LSU's chief spokesperson and steward, for those shocking and disturbing actions. In doing so, he fused the mission of the university with the actions of the mob, even celebrating those actions.
Chancellor Martin's remarks compromise LSU's reputation. At the very least, we call upon him to clarify his position and condemn the incivility and violence that met Benjamin Haas that day. In the absence of such clarification and retraction, Chancellor Martin has a share of blame in any violence that befalls Mr. Haas, as well as for the inevitable tarnishing of this otherwise fine institution's image as a place of genuine learning, dialogue, and civility.
In a private email response to the first version of this petition, Chancellor Martin suggests that his public statement praising the patriotism of counter protesters referred only to a small event held later, "not the specific actions of some individuals who resorted to negative behaviors. Certainly I do not support violence or intimidation in any way." While it's gratifying to get this message privately, the lack of a firm public response in kind suggests that this position isn't one he's willing to take publicly, making it difficult to see as anything but a transparent PR attempt to deflect attention from the issues.
Here's why a public response matters:
1. Chancellor Martin's initial press release praising the patriotism of the students involved is a major part of his response to Benjamin's actions. He suggests that there was actually dialogue between Benjamin and the counter protestors. It's as if Chancellor Martin believes he can simply snip out the mob action between Benjamin's attempt to speak and the later protest as if they never happened. If he genuinely believes the counter protest was different, he needs to speak publicly to that difference or it's too easy for members of that mob to consider their actions as having his approval: his silence becomes a winking endorsement of the mob.
2.It would be incorrect to assume that everyone at the later part of the counter protest took part in the mob action, but it would be equally incorrect to presume some sort of bright line between them. Clearly some, if not most, of those who gathered to say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the National Anthem were part of that mob. The Pledge concludes "with liberty and justice for all." Liberty and justice were denied to Benjamin by the mob's actions and by Chancellor Martin's attempt to ignore them. It cheapens the Pledge, the flag itself, and those who died to protect the freedoms of the nation it stands for if we fail to note that saying it after disrupting a peaceful protest, throwing things at a fellow citizen, threatening his life, and hurling hate speech like "go home fucking faggot" is rather like attending a prayer breakfast after a night of drunken debauchery: It only works if you're actually reflecting on your previous actions, not using prayer to cover them up. To suggest otherwise is a cynical and callous abuse of The Pledge of Allegiance.
In the end, the most fundamental question is, why isn't Chancellor Martin eager to publicly denounce the mob behavior? Why hesitate? If, as he suggests, the counter protest was actually quite different, why not take this opportunity to publicly present evidence of that difference, to explain to students the important distinctions in the behavior that characterized them? Why not note the consequences of the mob in shutting Benjamin down?
Why, in other words, is he failing to live up to the Pledge he praises by not stepping up to acknowledge the harm the mob did to "liberty and justice for all" of the students of LSU? Or is he, in fact, only interested in protecting some of them?
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