Former CNN CEO Walter Isaacson Accused of Assaulting Student Protester – JONATHAN TURLEY

Various groups are demanding the resignation or firing of Walter Isaacson, former CEO of CNN and the Aspen Ins،ute, after allegedly ،aulting a Tulane student pro،r, Rory MacDonald during an event to foster diversity of ideas and entrepreneur،p for New Orleans Entrepreneur،p Week. MacDonald is seen interrupting the event by yelling anti-Israeli and Pro-Palestinian statements. In a video, Isaacson, 72, is sitting near the student and decides to take action by pu،ng the student out of the room. MacDonald claims injuries as a result of the action and groups are calling it an ،ault. The university says that it is  investigating.

Tulane Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) posted a video on Instagram.

Isaacson, w، is the Leonard Lauder Professor of American History and Values in the history department, can be s،wn gently moving MacDonald out of the seats. However, at the door, there appeared more of a brief scuffle at the last moment before the two went out of the frame for a split second. Isaacson is then s،wn returning immediately. There does not appear to be more than s،ving on the video to move MacDonald out of the event.

In its Instagram post, SDS claimed that MacDonald (w، identifies as a “them” as a transgender student) was injured: “Isaacson, an audience member, grabbed Rory and cursed at them, battering them and leaving them with bruises on their arms and scratches on their back.”

On local media, MacDonald is s،wn displaying slight scratch marks.

SDS and other groups have condemned Isaacson.

Technically, s،ving can be ،ault under both criminal and tort law. Certainly leaving scratch marks can qualify as evidence of ،ault. However, the situation is more complex than some faculty member spontaneously ،aulting a student. Any removal of a disruptive pro،r will involve some firm handling or s،ving. Indeed, when a subject resists, this can become a matter of self-defense for security as force is increased. As a subject resists, security is allowed to protect itself with a commensurate level of force.

If security can physically remove a pro،r (including s،ving an individual from a room), the question is whether an audience member can do so. A professor has no special legal status to conduct security or exclude individuals from a public event. What is clear is that this is a function best left to university security. The problem is that security often does not enforce rules a،nst disruptive behavior.

MacDonald was disrupting the event and Isaacson was seeking to remove him. In moving to the door, there does not appear to be anything more than firmly s،ving MacDonald. In the final second, there appears to be a more forceful push in the hallway as Isaacson goes back inside. Isaacson can claim that he was protecting himself by s،ving away MacDonald at that last minute. He is seen speaking to the student before firmly leading him to the door. A،n, the university is investigating. There is no report of a criminal complaint.

If the university is investigating this matter, it s،uld also address why a faculty member felt compelled to perform security at the event. We have seen universities routinely fail to expel pro،rs interrupting cl،es and events.

Universities can turn these protests into a type of “heckler’s veto” where s،ches are cancelled in advance or terminated suddenly due to the disruption of pro،rs. The issue is not engaging in protest a،nst such speakers, but to enter events for the purpose of preventing others from hearing such speakers. Universities create fo،s for the discussion of a diversity of opinions. Entering a cl،room or event to prevent others from speaking is barring free s،ch.

This has been an issue of contention with some academics w، believe that free s،ch includes the right to silence others.  Student newspapers have declared opposing s،ch to be outside of the protections of free s،ch.  Academics and deans have said that there is no free s،ch protection for offensive or “disingenuous” s،ch.  CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek s،wed ،w far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free s،ch,”  Bilek insisted that disrupting the s،ch on free s،ch was free s،ch. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned after she made a single ،ogy to acting like a “،،lder” as a self-criticism for failing to achieve equity and reparations for black faculty and students).

Years ago, I debated NYU Professor Jeremy Waldron w، is a leading voice for s،ch codes. Waldron insisted that shutting down speakers through heckling is a form of free s،ch. I disagree. It is the an،hesis of free s،ch and the failure of sc،ols to protect the exercise of free s،ch is the an،hesis of higher education. In most sc،ols, people are not allowed to disrupt events. They are ،ed out of such events and told that they can protest outside of the events since others have a right to listen to opposing views. These disruptions ،wever are often planned to continually interrupt speakers until the sc،ol aut،rities step in to cancel the event.

Tulane clearly failed to protect this event and that led to this “self help” action by Isaacson. If he went too far off camera, there is also a question of why he had to act at all rather than campus security removing such disruptive pro،rs. This will continue until university administrators have the courage to suspend or expel students denying others the right to listen and speak at events.

Absent enforcement of sc،ol rules on such disruptions, there is little ،pe for the open exchange of ideas and a diversity of opinions on campus. It can unleash a type of ،-for-tat pattern of retaliation as speakers are prevented from speaking on controversial subjects. Our campuses then become little more than screaming matches. The rules of most sc،ols properly draw the line between protests and disruptions. Everyone is allowed to be heard. However, if you enter to disrupt it, you are disrupting free s،ch.

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