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A difficult Saturday

Saturday was a very difficult day for our campus. Many in our University community, including me, were saddened and frustrated by the precautionary cancellation of events due to safety concerns related to the Patriot Prayer rally, including events related to Black History Month. I understand why it would appear to some that these events were sacrificed to host a group that many associate with racist views that stand counter to our university values. I am writing today to explain the logic of my decision making.

As most know by now, our rules allow registered student organizations to sponsor events and invite speakers on campus. As a public university, we cannot prevent an invited speaker or group from speaking on campus based on their ideology or views. We can only cancel an event when there is a credible threat of violence. Throughout a month of security planning for Saturday’s event, no such threat emerged. The group itself was denouncing violence and, to the best of our knowledge, those students who were even aware of the event planned to go about their business and not respond to the provocation and attention many believed the group was seeking.

After receiving information that there were outside groups planning to attend with the intent of instigating violence, we asked both the sponsoring club and Joey Gibson, the head of Patriot Prayer, to cancel Saturday’s event and reschedule to another time when we could better plan for safety and when other events would not be affected. They declined. As is the case with any large event on campus, UWPD consulted with other law enforcement agencies and then shared their concern with me that cancelling the event, if it was not done voluntarily by the organizers, would likely pose greater safety risks by making the situation harder to contain. Supporters and opponents were likely to confront one another on campus regardless. As Gibson said on Saturday, “You tell me I can’t come out here and speak in an open public park, I’m going to come here, no matter what.” Our Seattle campus opens out to the community and there is no way to fully patrol its perimeter, short of building a wall. My decision was made to put the safety of our community first.

I was aware that this decision came with a cost — and not only in dollars. There were certainly emotional, opportunity and financial costs to the groups who for safety reasons canceled long-planned events — including events that were meant to celebrate our diversity. Others are understandably concerned and angered that we may be viewed as a space that welcomed racist individuals or groups. Some students may even feel that I prioritized this event over diversity-related ones. These costs are real and I hear, acknowledge, and understand the frustration, anger and pain they contain. Indeed, I share it. But, safety had to be the most important consideration.

I welcome continued conversations about the costs involved in operating our campus as a limited open forum, where members inside and outside our community can congregate — whether to march in favor of women’s rights, to leaflet against higher taxes or abortion, to spontaneously celebrate or grieve world events, to proudly proclaim that Black Lives Matter. We could bar any student club from inviting outside speakers or put other policies in place that could minimize the possibility that events like Saturday’s will happen in the future. But those policies must be legally viewpoint-neutral, and could have wide-reaching consequences. So I encourage us all to think about, and talk about, what that would mean for who we are today — and tomorrow. I personally believe that an open society and open campus makes us stronger, that once we begin to wall off our campus, those of us who believe with all our hearts in a diverse and inclusive campus have the most to lose. But, let’s talk. I promise to listen. The decision is not just mine; it is ours.