Letter to the Editor: IOP Director Responds to Protests at Alvarez Event

By David Axelrod

Do you believe in a society in which people simply shut down and silence those with whom they disagree? Can our democracy function that way?

That’s exactly what happened Wednesday at the Institute of Politics (IOP) when the Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was interrupted by loud and profane protesters, who brought to a halt her presentation to a group of students and community members.

Each of Alvarez’s opponents in the March 15th Democratic primary, Kim Foxx and Donna More, had previously appeared at the IOP and were afforded a respectful hearing. But protesters, many of whom were not students, came to the State’s Attorney’s presentation Wednesday determined to deny her, and the audience who came to hear her, the same right.

One of the missions of the IOP is to bring people from across the political spectrum to air their ideas and make their cases. We believe our students and the larger community are thoughtful enough to evaluate what they hear, ask probing questions, and make their own judgments.

I understand that the campaign for State’s Attorney has stirred great passion. The issues of crime and police-community relations are front and center and are of huge concern, which was precisely why we felt the University community would want to hear from all the candidates.

I commend State’s Attorney Alvarez for appearing to make remarks and answer questions, knowing there would be pointed queries about her office’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting and other cases.

She came in good faith and insisted on no ground rules. But a small group of protesters, some of whom were openly supportive of another candidate, shouted her down. The great irony is that, through their actions, they ensured no one would get the chance to ask Ms. Alvarez challenging questions.

One of the ugly turns in the public discourse these days is coarseness and intolerance—the notion that we should not simply disagree with the people with whom we have differences, but we should deny them the right to speak. The IOP was created, in part, to be a safe place where people of differing views, parties, and backgrounds could air their ideas and make their cases, and grapple with provocative questions.

This commitment to free and open debate is not only consistent with a university setting, but also with a healthy, functioning democracy.

I admire those who feel passionately enough about public issues to be moved to action. At the same time, I believe strongly that free and open debate should not be muzzled by government, university administrations, or angry mobs.

The IOP is purely extracurricular. Participation is voluntary. No one is required to come to these events. Those who object to a speaker have the absolute right to “vote with their feet” by not attending.

But we are going to continue to insist that speakers are afforded the courtesy of a hearing and that those who come to listen are given the chance to question them.

David Axelrod

Director, Institute of Politics