Univ. steps up security in response to death threats against guest speaker

“The common realization was that canceling this event would be a defeat.”

By Brandon Lee

Security around campus was severely heightened on Thursday evening as Franco-Moroccan cartoonist, journalist, and human rights activist Zineb El Rhazoui discussed her work at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo at an event sponsored by the University of Chicago French Club. The talk followed the assassination of 12 people at the office of the newspaper.

Security threats in January were brought to the attention of the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD), Chicago Police Department (CPD), and state officials following the publication of an International Business Times article detailing a massive Twitter campaign under threatening hastags against El Rhazoui in which ISIS supporters called for her assassination. Postings about her personal life and whereabouts placed campus security on high alert.

An e-mail sent Wednesday evening from professor Robert Morrissey (Ph.D ’78) and Dean of Students in the University Michele Rasmussen to registered attendees of the event detailed that all attendees would be searched and would be required to present valid identification matching their names on a restricted RSVP list. Large bags were not allowed into the hall and a coat check was enforced. Law enforcement officers were visibly armed within the Law School premises, and the auditorium was watched by at least seven officers at all times during the talk.

The annual winter Humans vs. Zombies game, in which students chase their opponents across campus with Nerf guns, was cancelled for the day in light of the heightened security. Game organizers warned that players could face University and legal punishment if they participated on Thursday.

“I am amazed at the tremendous collaboration and support that came out from the administration,” French Club president and fourth-year student Eve Zuckerman said. She emphasized that an extensive collaboration among UCPD, CPD, the State Department, the French embassy in Washington and the American embassy in Paris occurred in order to make the event a reality. “It took a shared realization on both sides of the Atlantic that this collaboration would be needed if this was event was going to happen and, more importantly, that this event had to happen.”

University spokesperson Jeremy Manier emphasized the need to keep security details private. “It was determined by UCPD and other agencies that there was a threat and we’re taking precautions that we think are appropriate,” Manier said. This was not the first time the University has heightened security to guarantee the safety of personnel on campus; such measures haven been taken before in other high profile visits.

“The common realization was that canceling this event would be a defeat,” Zuckerman said.  She further emphasized that saying security costs and risks were too high to invite El Rhazoui would be giving up on the University’s commitment to freedom of speech. “How many Charlie Hebdo journalists have been invited to speak in the U.S.? Zero.”