Ari Boosalis ’15 spent much of his junior year at Columbia University living in fear and defiance.
The president of the Columbia University College Republicans, he invited two conservative speakers who drew the ire of Antifa activists from off campus and liberal groups on campus.
What followed were violent confrontations and a media storm that put Boosalis in front of cameras on Fox News and PBS’s Market Watch. Boosalis saw his photo plastered on posters around campus, including close to his dorm room, that read, in part, “If you see Ari, let him know what you think.”
Rather than make him back down, this backlash confirmed Boosalis’s belief in the importance of the First Amendment.
“Some people at Columbia believe that freedom of speech is not for everyone but only for themselves,” said Boosalis. “It’s a double-edged sword. If you’re willing to protect your speech, then you have to be willing to protect the other person’s speech, no matter what he or she believes.”
Trouble began when Boosalis invited to Columbia Mike Cernovich, often described as an alt-right social media personality and conspiracy theorist. He also invited Tommy Robinson, a far-right British anti-Islamic activist, who spoke and answered questions via Skype.
Boosalis’ goal wasn’t to promote the ideals espoused by these men but invite them to share their beliefs in front of members of his club, whom he hoped would engage them in question-and-answer sessions. He also hoped members of his club would gain insight into why so many supported the movement that led to Donald Trump being elected president and why nationalist movements in Europe were on the rise.
“The Republican Party is suffering from so much infighting that I wanted students to hear from as many sides of the party spectrum as possible so they could determine their own values for themselves.”
He posted invitations to these events on his club’s website. After a story appeared in the school’s newspaper in September, campus groups denounced the speakers as white nationalists, and websites such as Gotham and the Drudge Report picked up the controversy.
Tucker Carlson invited Boosalis to appear on his show on Fox to debate the merits of his case, and The New York Post later covered the story.
During the event, protesters drowned out the broadcast of the talk with jeers and chants. “Someone then pulled out an Ethernet cord, and the screen went blank,” said Boosalis. “We don’t endorse Tommy’s cause, but we did want to hear what he had to say.”
About a week after the Oct. 10 talk by Robinson, Boosalis began seeing posters around campus with his face that he believed encouraged fellow students to attack him both verbally and physically. “The sentence ‘let Ari know what you think’ was ambiguous. I was worried that the members of the club and I would be attacked. Some people yelled ‘shame’ at me and called me a white supremacist. Even the school band entered the library and called me the grand wizard of the KKK. I watched online as crowds booed me. I stopped going to school events, as I know that I’m no longer welcome.”
Two weeks later, when Cernovich came to campus, protesters marched down 125th Street before entering Alfred Lerner Hall. Boosalis hoped students would challenge Cernovich’s efforts to promote a now-debunked conspiracy theory involving a D.C. pizza parlor and an alleged pedophile ring.
In addition to those who had reserved tickets, others broke through barricades to force their way into the lobby but were barred from entering the hall. “Mike was able to give his speech, although there were a few interruptions,” said Boosalis.
Boosalis no longer feels threatened on campus “but I do feel uneasy and unwelcome.” He also refuses to leave his dorm or transfer to another school. “If I leave, then this behavior will continue and others will suffer, just as I have. If I believe in the First Amendment, then I should be willing to be called these names. I hope my actions show people what’s at stake here and that Freedom of Speech applies to everyone.”
He plans to continue his activities this semester by hosting former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci and staging a debate between right wing commentator Ann Coulter and Mickey Kaus a self-described neoliberal journalist and pundit. Boosalis will also speak at SI during his spring break at a gathering of SI’s Republican Club.
As for a model of civil discourse, Boosalis points to his experience at SI, where he heard both Condoleezza Rice and Rep. John Lewis address the student body. “I thought it was valuable hearing both points of view. Both speakers opened my eyes to the world and showed how they translate Jesuit values into their actions. Columbia can learn a lot from SI’s example.”
Choose groups to clone to: