The Beloit community was roiling before and after March 27, the date that Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater Worldwide, was to speak on campus. Blackwater, a private military contractor, has been implicated in human rights violations, including employing guards found guilty of killing 17 Iraqi citizens in Baghdad in 2007.
Young Americans for Freedom, a small, conservative student group, invited Prince, citing his perspective on free market solutions to national security. The Beloit YAF chapter has hosted other politically conservative speakers, including former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who spoke on campus last fall and answered questions during a brief Q & A.
The Erik Prince event went down differently. Weeks before the event, many students were vocal in their opposition to Prince’s visit. One such group, Students for an Inclusive Campus (SIC), researched and disseminated information about the speaker, then planned a walkout and alternative events.
Roughly 300 people filled Moore Lounge the night of the speech. A minute before Prince was scheduled to speak, about a third of the students got up and walked out to attend other programming designed to deplete Prince’s audience. SIC sponsored a drag ball and a cooking demonstration with the goal of celebrating marginalized identities and leaving the speaker to deliver his remarks in a mostly empty room.
But those who had been standing filled the seats, and a different student protest unfolded. A small group of students beat on a dismantled drum kit and chanted Prince’s name, while he waited in a separate room to take the stage. College security, in conjunction with the Dean of Students office, said they planned ahead of time not to restrain or physically remove student disrupters. After a heated exchange between drummers and a representative from YAF, a security officer attempted to block the drummers’ re-entry to the lounge and was pushed aside.
About 45 minutes of cacophony continued, and with no speaker in sight, some students started piling chairs on the stage. Acting Dean of Students Cecil Youngblood announced that the talk was cancelled because of safety concerns. Many cheered, while some students helped put the chairs back where they belonged. As the room emptied out, the alternative events continued in other parts of the building as planned.
Several groups issued statements about the kerfuffle in the days that followed. College leadership stood by its commitment to free inquiry and peaceful protest—as long as speakers are not significantly disrupted. Students for an Inclusive Campus denounced the tactics of the predominantly white students who organized the drum disturbance. Through email and social media, some aligned with the principle of free speech while others expressed support for students they believed were justified in silencing the speaker.
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, happened to be in Beloit the week before Prince, holding the 2019 Weissberg Chair. In a Columbia Journalism Review opinion piece, Simon wrote about what happened, concluding with this: “Beloit College may be a small school in Wisconsin, but the way the students there and at many other colleges and universities across the country grapple with the complex issues of free speech has implications for the rights of journalists around the world. The defense of independent journalists on the front line depends not just on legal protections, but a shared belief of the inherent value of free expression. We need the next generation on our side. Right now, we don’t have it.”