Matt Walsh controversy continues for ISG

By Yuzhu Liu, Assistant Features Editor

On Oct. 6, right-wing political commentator Matt Walsh visited the University for a screening of his documentary “What is a Woman.” The same night, the Illinois Student Government posted a statement on its Instagram account. While expressing its support for the LGBTQ+ community as pointing out that Walsh’s claims are hateful, the statement declared that “free speech permits such discussion to occur.”

Students flooded to the Instagram comments, including Soumil Biswas, sophomore in ACES. He argued that the University, which prides itself on the inclusivity of LGBTQ+ individuals, should have prevented Matt Walsh from spreading hate speech against trans people.

“I don’t know if hate speech really consists of free speech, but the hate that was brought to trans people because of this event definitely does not align with the University’s beliefs, so they should not allow that to happen,” Biswas said.

Biswas said he believes ISG should have censored the event. He noted that the student government should represent the voice of the student body, and many in the student body were calling for condemnation.

“The statement ISG put out was very lackluster,” Biswas said. “It was kind of a dumb response because they could just condemn it or just stay silent.”

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Four days after the incident, Vindhya Kalipi, junior in LAS, resigned from her position as the vice president of ISG. According to ISG’s announcement, Kalipi resigned over “a fundamental difference of opinion regarding free speech.”

Before Walsh’s arrival, Kalipi talked to administrators and looked through existing laws. She said she understood the Supreme Court has upheld that hate speech is technically protected under free speech. However, Kalipi said she was upset and believed ISG should take a stand and prohibit hate speech.

“We represent students, and we should be listening to what the student body that elected us and believed in us wants,” Kalipi said. “If the administration doesn’t want to do anything about it, at least we should be doing something.”

Kalipi recalled that she was frustrated when she found out she was the only executive member who believed hate speech should be prohibited.

President Garrett Forrest, junior in LAS, said that though he agrees Matt Walsh’s visit was harmful, he believes free speech is the foundation of democracy.

“The price of having free speech — the price of having a society where you don’t have to worry no matter who’s in power of your views being suppressed or you being punished for advocating for something … The price of that is hate speech,” Forrest said.

He mentioned the counter-protest outside Walsh’s discussion.

“When Matt Walsh was here, there was a counter protest outside there, highlighting the beautiful diversity of the LGBTQ+ community,” Forrest said. “I think it’s on those of us who are opposed to hate speech, who are opposed to the ideas being spread by people like Matt Walsh, to be even louder to convince even more people that we’re right.”

Forrest noted his other concern was that the demand to ban Walsh could impact his relationship with University administration. 

“It would have reduced my ability to negotiate and work with them on trying to address all of the other issues that I’m really focused on trying to make progress on this year, whether that’s campus safety, textbook and course material or (providing help to) students dealing with sexual assaults,” Forrest said. “They do appreciate and have respect for the fact that I didn’t ask them to do something that they legally couldn’t have done.”

Kalipi said she initially drafted a lengthy response that discussed why hate speech should not be protected, but the executive team decided to trash the whole statement and started a new one. Kalipi said she regrets approving the second statement and signing her name on it.

“For a second there, I fell into the politicians’ trap,” Kalipi said. “I was so nervous about how it would be if the executive (team) disagreed. I think that ultimately, I was just scared.”

Patrick Porter, senior in LAS and ISG Senator, said that the executive team excluded regular ISG members from the drafting process.

“There wasn’t even any discussion whatsoever, so when everybody else saw it, that was the first time I saw it,” Porter said. “I didn’t expect to see that kind of response.”

Porter said he and many in the Senate disagreed with Forrest’s rhetoric, which looks like it was “copied and pasted.” Porter argued it is the student government’s “minimum responsibility” to reaffirm their support for the LGBTQ+ community. He pointed out that redirecting the targeted transgender students to the University’s resources is not enough.

Knowing the lack of response from University administration, Porter said ISG could have taken this opportunity to show more decisive leadership. He said the response was so disappointing that he published a statement of his own, claiming that ISG must stand against hate speech.

“There are clearly many of us within ISG that weren’t happy with the position that we as an official body took … some of us don’t want to necessarily be associated with the statement,” Porter said. “If we were able to deliberate on this a little bit more to add our own insight into it, I’m not sure if it would have made any significant difference in this instance.”

Forrest clarified that multiple people were involved in the decision-making process, including Kalipi, who Forrest said was “a strong defender” of the position of Porter and many other ISG members. Forrest asserted that he has the right from the Student Government Constitution to unilaterally make a statement on behalf of ISG.

“I am the leader of this institution, and I’m not obligated to bring more people into the discussion when I’m making a post like that,” Forrest said. “I had to make what I believed was the right decision, and having more people involved in that discussion, I could say wasn’t going to change my mind about that fundamental issue of free speech.”

Mia Macias, junior in LAS, said she was mad when reading ISG’s response. She said she understood the free speech standards but believed more precautions could have been taken to protect transgender and nonbinary students. She said she expected to see informative massmails and helpful resources.

“I feel like there’s a lot that (ISG) can do in their power to at least try and stop something like this from happening again,” Macias said. “But, even if they had, it’s possible that someone like this could still come to campus, but it’s also the fact that they weren’t really willing to try.”

Forrest explained that he and Kalipi intended to put out a message earlier but suspended the decision because of their disagreement. Kalipi wanted to form an advocacy coalition to petition for change on a governmental level, an action that was opposed to Forrest’s arguments on free speech.

“The problem there was Vice President Kalipi’s position, essentially firmly that unless we’re calling for a ban, she wasn’t wanting to put a statement out,” Forrest said. “It was last minute because (of) the pressure that both of us wanted to say that we affirm the LGBTQ+ community and we don’t agree with Matt Walsh.”

Kalipi said Forrest “didn’t want any room for disagreement in the executive,” and she decided not to compromise to stay in ISG.

“I am really glad that ultimately I stuck to my morals because that’s what I should have done in the first place,” Kalipi said.

Macias said she was glad that Kalipi resigned.

“Really acknowledging the issue and resigning honestly spoke volumes because it shows that she cares,” Macias said. “But unfortunately, because of her co-workers, there was only so much that she could do.”

Porter noted there is a lack of communication within ISG, whether between branches or between the executive and regular Senate members. He said ISG had “awful” outreach and transparency to the student body.

“The only time that the student body really sees anything that ISG does is through these social media posts, and that really tarnished (its) reputation,” Porter said.

Under a recent Instagram post, ISG responded to Macias’ comment regarding trans rights, telling her that the student government has big plans to engage the LGBTQ+ community on campus. Marcias said she recognized the positive movement but felt upset about the late action initiated after LGBTQ+ students had already expressed their concerns.

“Okay, it’s great that you’re acknowledging it, but it’s something that should have already been done,” Macias said.

Biswas questioned how ISG would implement these plans.

“I don’t know what that means,” Biswas said. “Have they reached out to LGBTQ+ organizations? I want to see something.”

Kalipi and Porter both said they were not aware of previous discussions around the plans. Kalipi added that she believes there is no way for ISG to make up for what it did.

“Unless they spin it around and fight for hate speech not being protected under the First Amendment, there is nothing they could do that can override the mistakes that they made,” Kalipi said.

Forrest said ISG and the administrations are taking more steps on proactive communications. He said he is also getting feedback from critical workshops within ISG and open discussions with various student leaders. He said he agrees he didn’t do enough regarding the Matt Walsh situation and promised to do everything he can to protect students from hate speech.

Biswas said he thinks Forrest should resign, as Biswas believes the president fails to represent the students’ voice. He said he has been upset with the student government for a while and decided to run for senator next semester. He emphasized that he wants more ISG candidates who care about minorities.

Forrest said he understands why many students disagree with his insistence on free speech, and he feels incumbent to listen.

“There is so much more that unites us in terms of our commitment to protecting diversity … and we shouldn’t have to look at each other as enemies,” Forrest said. “I know that many of them look at me right now as a fundamentally bad person, as someone who doesn’t care about them, but I do care. And I am listening.”

Kalipi pointed out that the general morale in student government is low. She said she saw people wanting to make a change ended up shaping an “elitist institution.”

“I had hoped that a new assembly and the new VP would never be involved in student government culture, so things would be different,” Kalipi said. “But I think this whole thing just goes to show that there will always be an elite force that controls everything, so I don’t know.”

 

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