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Columbia Controversy Simmers

David Ferris Nov 3, 2006

ColumbiaA month after Columbia University students unexpectedly shut down a speech by the anti-immigrant Minuteman Project on Oct. 4, the incident continues to draw waves of both criticism and support from across the country, adding fuel to the growing political clash regarding racism and U.S. immigration policies.

Columbia’s College Republicans invited Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist to address a campus audience. The controversy over Gilchrist’s appearance swelled in the weeks leading up to the event, culminating in the disruption of his speech by students who jumped on stage and unrolled a banner reading “No one is illegal.” The act prompted a tug-of-war over the banner and a physical altercation, which within minutes, resulted in the cancellation of the rest of the event. Students have been strongly criticized for violating the free speech rights of the invited guests, although video evidence indicates that the protesters were not responsible for the violence.

The stage-rushers never called for the Minutemen to be banned from speaking at the university. “It’s not about what they’re saying, it’s what they’re doing,” said Karina Garcia, political chair of the Chicano Caucus at Columbia and one of the protest organizers. “We don’t have to wait until there are thousands of them on the border to realize they’re dangerous.”

Columbia has received significant outside pressure to punish the students severely and has delivered official letters to several students involved in the protest indicating that it may bring disciplinary charges against them. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has openly questioned Columbia President Lee Bollinger on his commitment to the First Amendment and Gilchrist has threatened to file a lawsuit for alleged civil rights violations.

The intense press coverage has also provoked an outpouring of support from students across the country and represents the potential for a national student movement against the Minutemen in particular and for immigrant rights in general. “Regardless of how the media has vilified us, this is an opportunity to expose them,” said Garcia, who received thousands of letters of support after Gilchrist abruptly walked out of a nationally broadcast debate with her on Democracy Now!