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Violence has no place at our University and no role in our democracy

Dear Students, Faculty and Staff,

You have likely heard by now about the events in Red Square on the Seattle campus last night in conjunction with protests against a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos — protests which were then joined by a large group coming from demonstrations downtown. I want to say very clearly: Violence has no place at our University and in our communities. It is heartbreaking that a man was shot and others assaulted during what should have been peaceful demonstrations. The gunshot victim is currently hospitalized, and we fervently hope for his full recovery.

The violence that occurred is a betrayal of all those who sought to exercise their right to peaceful protest or to attend the event. The right to peaceful protest is every bit as sacrosanct as the right to speak. A suspect in the shooting turned himself in to UWPD late last night, and police are continuing their investigation. No other suspects in the shooting are being sought, but I encourage anyone with information about this or other incidents of related violence to contact the police immediately.

In the weeks leading up to the event, I received calls and emails from many who wanted this event canceled, some of which cited the potential for disruption and conflict. My team and I consulted extensively with UWPD and Seattle Police beforehand, and while no credible threats were received, I gave serious consideration to the calls and emails and consulted with legal scholars and the UW division of the Attorney General’s Office.

So why did I allow the event to go on? First, there is the legal right of our student groups to invite speakers, even a controversial one whose message is anathema to many, including me. We are bound by the law. But beyond that, canceling the event would have sent the message that a risk of disruption or conflict can be used to overwhelm our rights. That would empower those on the extremes willing to resort to such tactics. And while canceling this event would have meant canceling a speech by someone whose views I personally find repulsive, the next time it could be a speaker whose views are more in line with mine, but anathema to someone else. Then there would be silence, with all the real discussion happening underground where arguments could not be examined, or critiqued openly.

Earlier this week I wrote to our community about the power of peaceful protest and political action. In a democracy, those are the instruments of true change, because in addition to violence being morally wrong, it begets more violence and weakens the causes of those who resort to it.

We should be deeply grateful to everyone who practiced nonviolence and to all those who worked so hard to maintain the safety of our community and campus. And there were many events throughout the day in many corners of our University that created spaces for speakers to engage our community in discourse on a range of topics — from health care, to diversity, to the power of resistance. This night did not define our day or our community.

Here and across our country, yesterday showed us that our nation is fraught with deep divisions. But even as we are united in our pain after last night, I also hope we are united in our resolve to make the world safer and better. The UW must be a place where passionately expressed views can be aired, where we can argue about our differences in a manner that is respectful and informed, and where we also look for, and find, common ground. We all need that, especially now.