High-Profile Speakers and Protests Come to the IOP

“Free and open debate should not be muzzled by government, university administrations, or angry mobs.”

By Peyton Alie

Over the course of the school year, the Institute of Politics (IOP) hosted many events featuring high-profile speakers, including several that attracted protests and controversy.

High-Profile Speakers

On September 28, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (A.B. ’64) spoke at Rockefeller Chapel to a crowd of more than 1,800 people. In addition to discussing his views on issues such as women’s rights, criminal justice reform, and campaign finance, Sanders spoke about his time at UChicago. Coming from a low-income background, Sanders struggled to adjust to UChicago, where many students came from wealthy backgrounds. This experience shaped Sanders’s commitment to socioeconomic equality.

On October 16, IOP Director David Axelrod moderated a discussion with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) at the International House (I-House) Assembly Hall. Axelrod and Pelosi discussed the then-vacant Speaker of the House position in light of John Boehner’s resignation. Pelosi argued that the lack of a clear successor to Boehner indicated that the Republican Party is an “anti-governance party.”

On April 7, President Barack Obama, a former constitutional law professor at the University, returned to the Law School to discuss the resistance to his nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Obama argued that Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider his nomination of Garland represents a failure of the Senate to fulfill its constitutional duty and the infringement of party politics on the judicial branch.

On May 9, former Daily Show host Jon Stewart spoke in Rockefeller Chapel for a live recording of Axelrod’s podcast, The Axe Files. Stewart and Axelrod discussed the 2016 election, with a particular focus on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Stewart stated that Trump’s reputation for “telling it like it is” and battling against political correctness is unwarranted because of Trump’s sensitivity to criticism. Stewart also criticized Clinton for not clearly expressing her convictions.

On May 12, whistleblower Edward Snowden addressed a crowd at Ida Noyes Hall over a video call. Snowden said that he had taken an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution and that he believed he had an obligation to the Constitution’s principles in spite of the illegality of his actions. Snowden also advocated for a simpler internal complaint system at government agencies.


On February 17, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez left 20 minutes into a talk at the IOP after vocal protests by representatives from several organizations, including Black Lives Matter (BLM) Chicago. Alvarez has been heavily criticized in light of the release of a video showing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times by a police officer, which reignited discussions and protests regarding police brutality against black people nationwide. Protesters held signs and chanted “Anita Alvarez does not believe that black lives matter,” prompting Alvarez’s exit. Following the incident, Axelrod wrote a Letter to the Editor published in The Maroon on February 18 denouncing the protests and arguing that “free and open debate should not be muzzled by government, university administrations, or angry mobs.”

On February 18, police intervened in a talk by Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid at I-House after disagreements between Eid and the audience. Eid has vehemently criticized the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to put pressure on Israel to alter its policies towards Palestinians. A Palestinian audience member questioned “what brought Palestinians to a place where they have to go work for their occupiers,” leading to a tense argument between Eid and the audience member. After the audience member was ushered away by I-House staff, others asked similar questions and questioned Eid’s status as a Palestinian and human rights activist. University of Chicago Police Department officers then intervened, removing the two audience members and Eid, and ended the event.

On April 25, members of the Armenian Students Organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the Hellenic Students Association protested a lecture by University of Louisville professor Justin McCarthy, who they say denies the Armenian Genocide, at I-House. McCarthy, who claims that the events deemed genocide were part of a civil war between the Ottoman Empire and Armenian rebels, has been accused of Armenian Genocide denialism by the International Association of Genocide Scholars. Protesters filled the second and third rows of the audience and placed red tape over their mouths. McCarthy asked the protestors to sit down, but they refused and then exited the room to applause.