James W. Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, was uninvited from a speaking engagement Saturday at the Harvard Undergraduate Legal Committee’s annual Public Interest and Law Conference, sparking debate over the limits of free speech.
Slated to speak as part of a panel on immigration, Gilchrist spent the past five months communicating with the conference organizers and raising funds from Minuteman supporters to finance his trip to Cambridge.
“Right before I’m supposed to board my plane for Boston, I get an e-mail from the sponsors saying that we have a problem,” he said, citing the “threat of a disturbance” as the reason given for his exclusion. He was given the news of the invitation’s withdrawal five days before he was scheduled to speak.
The movement to ban Gilchrist from the conference was largely initiated by Kyle A. de Beausset ’11, who in early October began using different university mailing lists to build support for uninviting Gilchrist due to his involvement in the Minuteman Project, which organizes civilians to patrol the border for illegal immigrants and to report crossings to the Border Patrol.
“It might be an interesting intellectual exercise for Harvard students to hear extremist views,” de Beausset wrote in one of these e-mails, but he added that the “broader implications of legitimizing these extremist views with the Harvard name” were more important.
“Jim Gilchrist’s willingness to spout falsehoods shows that he shouldn’t be given the legitimacy of open and free academic debate...His irresponsible rhetoric has led to violence,” de Beausset told The Crimson in an interview.
In a statement released on the conference Web site, the Undergraduate Legal Committee said that Gilchrist’s presence would detract from the conference because his attitude and views were inconsistent with the conference’s mission of promoting law and public service to foster social justice.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Gilchrist’s participation in the conference on the behalf of the Minuteman Project was not compatible with providing an environment for civil, educational, and productive discourse on immigration, and we cannot host him at this time,” it said.
The Undergraduate Legal Committee declined requests to provide further comment.
Heated discussion ensued over some campus e-mail lists. Students on the Black Men’s Forum e-mail list debated what constituted—in de Beausset’s words—“free speech and hate speech...responsible dialogue and irresponsible rhetoric.”
National news media outlets, including The Boston Globe, have reported on Gilchrist’s exclusion from the conference, and both Gilchrist and de Beausset have appeared on Fox News to discuss the situation.
Gilchrist is not unaccustomed to controversy. In 2006, a speech he was delivering at Columbia University came to a halt after students in the audience stormed the stage with banners and knocking over tables and chairs in protest.