Cleveland State University president Ronald Berkman sat onstage in the Main Classroom auditorium, with only a musician stand holding his notes and separating him from the crowd of about 200 angry students and community members.
They’d gathered for the forum Wednesday with the university president after several anti-LGBTQ posters were displayed on university bulletin boards throughout campus on Monday, sparking protests among students.
Berkman’s response in a campus-wide e-mail — that he remains “committed to upholding the First Amendment, even with regard to controversial issues where opinion is divided” — created further backlash and prompted a second email on Tuesday apologizing for the first.
“Yesterday was one of my most painful days of my presidency, as I realized I have failed,” Berkman said in his opening at the forum.
It did little to quell students’ fears and outrage, however. The fliers, which depicted a dark figure in a noose and appeared on the same day the university’s LGBT center was set to open, encouraged LGBTQ students to commit suicide.
“I have felt unsafe on this campus before, but never had I felt undoubtedly sure that this administration will not protect me,” said one student in tears.
Others demanded Berkman hold himself and the university accountable by speaking out against hate speech targeting the LGBTQ population. Tensions rose when the crowd started to chant, “no mercy,” but Berkman held his ground. He apologized for his initial insensitivity, but said his hands were tied when it comes to legal action. Instead, he called on students to work together with his administration to seek out further solutions.
“Today, it’s an act against one community, tomorrow it’s an act against another community,” said Berkman. “We are living in a time where the community is feeding off the fumes of hate.”
The fliers, Berkman’s response and the forum come as free speech issues on college campuses are becoming increasingly volatile. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency in preparation for today’s appearance by white nationalist Richard Spencer at the University of Florida. Spencer helped organize the rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, which led to the deaths of one woman and two police officers.
“The fact that certain speech makes people upset is not and has not for a long time been a basis for restricting that speech by the government,” said Jonathan Adler, Case Western Reserve University law professor and a contributing writer for The Washington Post, in a phone interview after the forum. “It doesn’t mean people in certain positions shouldn’t condemn this type of speech, like what was in these posters, but any claim that hate speech is somehow not covered by First Amendment protection is simply wrong.”
In 2015, after Nazi graffiti showed up in Cleveland State bathrooms, Berkman released a statement saying the incident would be investigated as a hate crime and that the perpetrator would be held accountable. At first glance, the incident is not unlike the fliers posted on Monday, which bore the Wolfsangel — a symbol used and adapted by Nazi groups since 1939.
In a one-on-one interview after the forum, Berkman addressed the two incidents.
“It’s a statement of hate, there’s no doubt about it. I don’t think that was more egregious or different than the other,” he said. “The fundamental difference was that the police regard [the 2015 incident] as criminal trespass and destruction of state property.”
By the end of the forum, Lauren Davis, an adviser for CSU’s Queer Student Alliance, offered to provide safe space training to Berkman and his board of trustees to ensure matters dealing with the LGBTQ community would be addressed appropriately.
“I would also argue that in an educational institution that it is exceptionally important to counter speech that is hateful or ignorant with more speech,” says Adler.
When asked if Berkman would be open to further training, he agreed.
“It wasn’t going to get resolved [at the forum],” said Berkman. “But it was the beginning of what will be a continuing dialogue.”