John Brennan, Campus Activism, and Free Speech


Last Friday, I heard CIA Director John Brennan speak at the Penn Museum. But not for long. To my great surprise, the event was quickly interrupted. A group of protesters, organized by Penn Students for a Democratic Society, yelled out incendiary comments. “The CIA is a terrorist group!” one protester shouted. “Drones kill kids!” another exclaimed. The protesters refused to stop shouting and had to be escorted out of the museum auditorium. Ultimately, Brennan’s talk ended prematurely, after the situation got out of hand.

The vast majority of the audience wanted to hear Brennan speak. Students booed when the protestors interrupted the CIA director for the second and third time. In addition, the audience gave Brennan not one but two standing ovations, after being prompted by moderator Marjorie Margolies. Nevertheless, the protesters continued to yell out comments.

In general, I am a big advocate of protest. Free speech, part of the First Amendment, is one of the fundamental rights of any American citizen. In fact, I participated in several protests before freshman year of college. I proudly yelled “black lives matter” while marching to the White House with my high school classmates. I laid down in the fetal position to recognize all of the African Americans shot down by police officers. These high school protests were part of a long tradition of peaceful protest, advocated by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Protesters, when acting in an appropriate manner, can be respectful of the opinions of other people while also calling attention to social issues.

However, I believe there are unique circumstances in which restrictions on free speech are appropriate. This right is abused when a protest goes far enough to shut down others’ speech. For example, consider the protests on Friday. The protesters did more than simply interrupt him. Rather, the first and third groups of protesters drowned out Brennan for several minutes each, making it virtually impossible to hear the CIA director. They continued speaking even after Marjorie Margolies politely asked them to stop. The protesters only stopped yelling after museum personnel removed them from the museum auditorium. Certainly, the right to free speech should not be restricted in most cases. Joe Sageman, a Teaching Assistant at the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote after the John Brennan incident: “the First Amendment protects civilian speech from government censorship, not the only way around.” But by acting in such an antagonistic manner, the protesters shut out Brennan’s side of the discussion and thus curtailed his right to free speech.

Very importantly, Brennan treated them with respect throughout this ordeal. He remained calm, did not use any offensive language, and took time to respond to the protesters’ criticism. Brennan, cognizant of the importance of free speech, was willing to engage an intellectual discussion. In contrast, the protesters were driven by an agenda – an agenda that some would call admirable – but not one that gave them the right to hijack Brennan’s speech.

There are more appropriate manners in which the activists could have protested. For example, they could have held up signs inside of the museum auditorium without interrupting Brennan’s speech. Alternatively, the protesters could have interrupted Brennan for a shorter amount of time: enough to communicate their message but enough to give him ample time to respond. By doing so, the protesters would have communicated their message but without infringing on Brennan’s First Amendment rights.

To their credit, the protesters raised some excellent points. In particular, the collateral damage caused by American drone strikes is a big concern. Due to the secretive nature of drone warfare, the number of civilian casualties is hard to determine. However, it is clear that a large number of civilians, including children, have died. Consider the example of Pakistan. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that American drone strikes from 2004 to the present resulted in anywhere from 2,497 to 3,999 casualties. 423 to 965 of those casualties were civilians. 172 to 207 were children. In Yemen, drone strikes have also led to an unacceptably high number of civilian deaths. In total, 518 to 752 people have died. Of that total, 65 to 101 were civilians, including 8 or 9 children.

In addition, the protesters rightfully called out the CIA for violating international law. Article 2(4) of the United Nations charter calls on all member states to “respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of other States.” By launching covert operations in other parts of the globe, the CIA transgresses upon the principle of sovereignty laid out in the article. While the morality of launching covert operations to counter terrorism is up to debate, the US’ violation of Article 2(4) is much clearer.

In short, my criticism of the protest is not an endorsement of the CIA’s policies. In addition, it is not an attempt to discredit the SDS students’ message. Rather, it is a call to debate the role of the CIA, and other foreign policy issues, in an open, intellectual forum. US foreign policy is a complex – and even morally ambiguous – topic and all sides on the issue deserve to be heard in the name of free speech.


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