By Regan Reeck, Katie Hobbins and KC Longley
The doors are locked.
There is a slight click as they are unlocked by the office secretary. The building is quiet, a stark contrast to days prior where cries of “Where is he?” echoed loudly enough to be heard on the street outside.
In the wake of a week orchestrated for disaster, President Ronald M. Berkman sits in his office. Nursing a recent root canal, he sits back and reflects on his role in a week pregnant with what he refers to as a miscommunication – which culminated itself into a perfect storm. One strong enough to trigger the radars of national media like NBC and Time Magazine, catching the attention of prominent figures such as Chelsea Clinton and Van Jones.
“I can make a lot of excuses, ‘I did it quickly, other things were going on’, the fact is that I didn’t take enough time to sit and really think through what the appropriate response was and there were a lot of things going on simultaneously,” Berkman said.
Eight posters, hung sporadically throughout Cleveland State University’s campus sparked an outrage, illuminating the fact that our university too, is not exempt from the complicated issues surrounding our First Amendment right to free speech.
The distributor of the posters hiding behind the pseudonym, Fascist Solutions, took an image – the colors now inverted, was first recorded on the online discussion boards of 4chan in 2014. Posted anonymously, as is customary on the site, it made its rounds through the internet. From Tumblr to Twitter, it was often tagged and attributed to the website IronMarch which dubs itself a “global fascist fraternity.” It eventually emerged in print at a bus station in Houston in April, 2017.
It has, since then made its way to Cleveland State.
The posters, like a heinous picture book, showed first an echo of wartime propaganda. Black and white, with an air of perfect Aryan descent, the poster boldly declared “We have a right to exist.”
Stapled beneath, mocking the rainbow – a symbol of pride – it attacked the LGBTQ+ community with incorrect suicide statistics and encouraged them to kill themselves.
While the poster itself casted a shadow of uncertainty and fear across campus, the anger felt by students and faculty – amplified by national news coverage – spurred protests and demonstrations that condemned Berkman’s initial response.
Given the ways this story spilled into the channels of national conversation on free speech, the pain that Berkman’s initial comments wrought and the complexity of the issues that they birthed, The Cauldron has endeavored to get behind the headlines and the tweets. To tell the larger story of how a series of arguably insensitive comments cascaded across the Cleveland State campus, accessed strong responses from the LGBTQ+ community and their allies and led to a rethinking among university official of how to approach these issues in the future. It drove a university president, who unwittingly added kindling to the fire of an already blazing controversy and became a national example, to better explain his views and take a stronger stance to defend his students.
Since the incident, Berkman and other members of the upper administration at Cleveland State have had to grapple with the image hoisted upon them of impartiality in the face of a sentiment of hate. Cauldron reporters sought to make sense of what happened by offering live coverage of the emotionally wrenching protests, talking to an array of people with different perspective and trying to look at the issue with the vantage point of distance.
Berkman and Cleveland State now have the arduous task of defining where the line between hate speech, protected by the First Amendment, and speech that spurs violence, harassment or intimidation, is drawn for our university.
The University Tries to Cope
Monday Oct.16, 2017
Four days after the poster was initially spotted by students, a statement was sent to the campus community from the president. In the statement, Berkman wrote that while Cleveland State is committed to “a campus community that respects all individuals, regardless of age, race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and other historical bases for discrimination,” the university is also fully committed to upholding the First Amendment, “even with regard to controversial issues [where] opinion is divided.”
The statement immediately came under fire from students and surrounding community because of the president’s lack of acknowledgement of the poster. This sentiment, paired with his promise to protect free speech, was seen as outright support of the poster’s message in the name of free speech.
In a later meeting, Berkman explained that the first statement was not intended to address the poster, rather it was meant as a statement of support for Turning Point USA’s event later in the week, where Charlie Kirk, the organization’s founder, spoke to an auditorium of students on Oct.19. The message, while ambiguously worded, was not intended to solely target that event, but to remind students that Cleveland State is a campus that strives for a diversity in discussion and opinion.
“I wanted to put out a general communique, obviously my feelings, my first priority is to student safety but there is – when done the way that this was done – our First Amendment obligation. That was the purpose of that memo,” Berkman said. “We have to protect at a university a diversity of voices.”
Berkman issued another statement on Tuesday saying that he “wanted to acknowledge that yesterday I failed to express my personal outrage over a recent incident involving an anti-LGBTQ+ poster.” He stated that while he personally felt that the poster was reprehensible,“the current legal framework regarding free speech makes it difficult to prevent these messages from being disseminated.” He continued, wanting to make it clear that he is “committed to promoting a safe and inclusive campus,” and invited the community to join him and members of his staff in an open forum on Oct. 18 in the Main Classroom Auditorium the next day.
A long crowded line outside the Main Classroom Auditorium and the gathering of camera equipment accompanied by local reporters set the stage for what was in store when the open forum began. The line, scattered with signs – one saying that ‘President Berkman defends white supremacy’ – added to the air of hurt.
As the crowded auditorium started to settle, Berkman stepped up onto the stage with the Vice President for University Engagement and Chief Diversity Officer, Maurice Stinnett who then opened the meeting with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. and a message to the students.
“Dr. Martin Luther King said these words, that – ‘truth and justice and equality. We are tied together in a single yarn of destiny, in an escapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one, affects us all indirectly. I cannot be all that I should be unless you are all that you’re supposed to be.’” Stinnett said. “I want you to know that we are here, the administration, to show our support – unyielding, unwavering support – to the LGBTQ+ community.”
Stinnett quietly standing side stage and Berkman sitting and placing papers on a music stand – both looked up at the crowd of upset students, faculty and concerned citizens. Speaking through a microphone, Berkman wanted to reassure the audience of his authenticity by saying that everything spoken in this meeting were his own words and opinions.
“I wrote all of these words myself. They’re not scripted. They’re not done by marketing. You’re hearing from me,” Berkman said. “I want to first begin by apologizing for the original memo, which in no way, shape or form, conveys the seriousness of the attack on the LGBT community.”
He went on to say that he has always tried to be a champion for the students and that he is saddened that he has let them down.
“I want to apologize for letting you down. I came to CSU nine years ago because I put a high premium on being in a public university with a diverse population. For me, it was a way to affirm and practice a lifelong commitment to inclusion and social justice,” Berkman said. “Yesterday was one of the most painful days in the nine years of my presidency, because I realized I had failed to convey these principles and values.”
Berkman continues – in a later meeting, reminding the campus that he asked for the public meeting, not the students. He thought the public forum was necessary to give people the opportunity to speak to him. While he was surprised at the number of people that showed up to attend the town hall – noting the lack of attendance at the forums for the presidential search – he hopes that it ultimately had a positive impact and showed his willingness to listen to student’s criticisms.
“The President was committed. I can say this on his behalf for having that public forum to just listen and hear the students,” Stinnett said. “He knew the students were hurting at that point and his only position was ‘I need to hear them and let them be angry and to vent’ and this was not the time to try and excuse himself. He just needed to hear his students.”
Berkman’s remorse became more tangible after being asked by a student how he would feel if he was the parent of a LGBTQ+ student. He hesitantly revealed that his daughter came out as a lesbian when she was a teenager. Stinnett later brought that point up again, expressing his admiration for the president’s vulnerability on the matter
“What I admire the most was that he was vulnerable to share his personal narrative about his own daughter and I think that that might have been missed given the emotion of it all, which I respect because you need to give space for the hurt and the healing [that was] so raw,” Stinnett said. “I did admire the fact that he raised to the table that this does not align with who I am at all because I am personally connected to this situation.”
He recounted having to watch his daughter struggle with outside reactions to her coming out and that the support he had for her then extends today to his students.
“Fourteen years ago, to come out [as] being gay in junior high school was a very, very tough journey so I saw what she went through. I saw what she experienced,” Berkman said. “ I know I always stood by her. I always stood for her ability to make the choice that she wanted to make and try to be supportive of her when she went through really difficult times.”
Berkman’s daughter, now 28, was 14 when she came out as a lesbian. He reiterates that he didn’t want students to feel as if he was using his daughter’s sexuality as a card which is why he revealed the fact only after being asked directly.
Later, Berkman admitted that he didn’t know whether or not the public forum was a success. He stated that while he knows that some students didn’t leave the public forum feeling heard, he hopes that as days go by students will think that it was positive.
“I don’t know, I really don’t. I did give people the chance to obviously emit. I hope that it demonstrated that I have an openness to hearing from them, that I wanted to hear from them. I didn’t want to be combatted,” He said. “All students didn’t leave singing Kumbaya and I didn’t think that that was ever going to happen. I hope that as days went by and people reflected a little bit that maybe it had a positive impact.”
Not all students agreed with Berkman’s sentiment. Sy Castells, the fundraising chair for the Queer Student Alliance (QSA), commented that the forum, in their opinion, proved how out of touch the administration was.
“They were kind of putting the all-ness on minority groups to tell them what to do. Every single one of their responses was ‘you need to tell us what to do’ rather than taking the initiative themselves to figure out what needs to be done,” Castells said. “Because a lot of the time, people were asking Berkman what he intended to do, he would respond with how he felt, which is frankly not relevant.”
Hurts and Wounds
Before administration had the chance to fully investigate the situation and address in person the magnitude of the events, students took it upon themselves to place blame where they saw fit.
It caused dispute among students, with accusations that TPUSA – a conservative, non partisan organization on campus – was responsible for the distribution of the posters. This came to a climax at one of their free speech wall events, on Oct. 18, when individuals not known to be affiliated with a student organization began using expletives, which eventually led to a student being shoved.
Both Tiffany Roberts, the campus’ chapter president and Charlie Kirk, vehemently denounced the accusations.
“It’s wrong, it’s abhorrent and any idiot that would write ‘fascist solutions’ on the bottom of a pamphlet is just that, an idiot,” Kirk said. “It’s hate speech. You know why? Because it shows someone dying. It incites suicide. It incites self-harm on that flyer, so it crossed the line.”
Roberts saying that if it was discovered that a member of her chapter did post it, they would be banned from the group.
Later that same day, Berkman’s town hall took place and allowed students a space to be heard.
The mistrust was palpable throughout the forum. One student directly stated that he has lost faith in the president.
“Seeing that speech being around campus, to me as a black male, that’s no different than calling me the n-word. If that happened tomorrow to my people as African Americans, what would you have done? I’ve just lost faith in you. It’s not really a question. I have no faith in you. That’s all I have to say,” he said.
To that, Berkman had no response.
Another student recounted her struggles with suicidal thoughts and an experience being a target for hate-fueled violence, asking the president how he will help the students now actively thinking of ending their lives.
“I’m a queer member of your campus and I’ve had five attempts on my life both by myself and by others. My question for you is that, these people who – because of the [posters] that have been put out – are considering ending their own lives are not going to come to your forum, and they’re not going to sign in, and they’re not going to tell you how they feel safe, so my question is directly to you and your administration,” She said. “How are you going to protect those people who are actively now considering their own lives and who are not going to reach out for your help?”
Many questioned about safety for the LGBTQ+ community during the entirety of the forum and Berkman responded by asking the students what the administration and he himself can do to make people feel safe at Cleveland State. He admitted that he can’t stop people from spreading hate, especially in this current political climate.
“I can’t make it go away, I can’t make all of these hate groups go away. I want you to tell me, given the context that I can’t make it all go away,” Berkman said. “I wish all of us could make it go away, but we can’t. So I need you to constructively tell us what we can do given the moment that we live in.”
Emily DeBoard, president of QSA, attended the town hall and while Berkman, in their opinion, is simply a figurehead for the issue. DeBoard feels that he did his best but they note he hasn’t attended any of the meetings that have been held because of recent events.
“I think it’s very easy to point blame at Berkman. He is an extremely easy target for students because, as the President, he offers a name and a face that people can pin blame on,” DeBoard said. “It was necessary that Berkman heard how upset everyone was. There was a lot of passion and feeling that was brought forward and I think administration needed to hear it. Even though it wasn’t that productive, it allowed for the students to be heard and the administration to hear how hurt everyone was by the administration.”
Thursday Oct.19, 2017
Students anger and fear was not fully extinguished after the forum and Molly Stachnik decided to take things into her own hands and created a protests she named “Hate Speech is not Free Speech” which happened during common hour on Oct.19 in Cleveland State’s courtyard.
The crowd started small, the Student Socialist Society a prominent fixture to the scene. It was an unusually warm October day with the sun beating down on the courtyard as students started appearing from classes, taking off sweatshirts and watching and listening to the scene in front of them.
The protesters initially surrounded a picnic table where students were free to stand with a megaphone and tell the crowd why they were there. Why they thought that it was important to speak out about what was the title of the very event, that hate speech, in their view, is not free speech.
As the crowd grew, the same camera equipment seen on the day prior was standing ready to be used by their news stations, local reporters were poised with their microphones and students stood listening to the speeches of the hurt and angry, some carrying signs saying, “Free Speech (doesn’t equal) Hate Speech,” “Arm Queer Folks” and “Solidarity Means Attack.”
Stachnik, a student at Cleveland State, thought that it was important to make a stand against what she thought was an inefficient response from the president.
“We want to make it clear that even if [the administration] doesn’t take a clear stance on homophobia, that we are, and we need to because these are hateful ideologies,” Stachnik said. “Today it’s just posters but people that have done shootings and hate crimes, they believe they have been indoctrinated as hateful ideologies, and it builds up, and they plan these things. It’s not like they just wake up one day and decide that they hate colored and gay people.”
Hannah Runge, a freshman forensic psychology major at Cleveland State, sat in the courtyard watching the protest unfurl. She agreed with the premise of it, saying that she thinks that the posters are a hate crime and the president should have said that they should have never been able to be put up, not only because the posters didn’t go through the proper channels but because of the content.
“As a human here at Cleveland State University, I do believe that it is a hate crime to post those posters around the school,” Runge said. “I want him to say that those posters should have never been put up in the first place because of the content of the posters not just because they put them up [without permission].”
Student, Larry Heller stood in the crowd at the protest holding a sign that said “No one need walk alone, Cleveland State United.”
He states that he understands that as a public university, Cleveland State is obliged to follow the state and federal constitutions and that there are limitations to what the university can do but that for him, it crossed a line.
“Being a state university, they are bound by certain rules. The state dictates the response to some extent. I support our constitution, and I support and protect the right to free speech, even hate speech,” Heller said. “But when hate crosses the line into threat I believe it’s a whole new idea. I believe it crosses a line, and it’s not acceptable on our campus.”
As the protest continued, it was decided that they would march to the Parker Hannifan Administration Center and demand to talk to the president, but once they arrived outside of his office, they were informed by William Dube, Cleveland State’s director of media and communication relations, that the president was not in his office or on campus.
With nowhere to go, students packed themselves into the hallway outside of the office and yelled, “Where is he?” and “We want to see Berkman.”
Stinnett arrived shortly after, trying to calmly talk with students about how he can help them, saying that as a black man, he can understand their hurt and that he wants to find a solution.
After going back and forth, all studiously filmed by the handful of local news cameras that had followed the crowd, it was decided that that protesters and Stinnett would immediately walk to a bigger room and calmly discuss what he can do to solve this.
It was here that students began discussing with him what they want to see change about how this situation was handled. One protester stated that before a memo is sent out to the students, it should be checked by a person that it may affect so that it is sympathetic to them and not disrespectful. Other protesters talked about making a student panel to help the faculty understand the students perspectives when something like this happens.
Now on an even playing field, the protesters and Stinnett calmly compiled a list of email addresses so that he could update them on the situation and what the administration will be doing to combat this happening again.
With that, Stinnett invited some of the students up to his office, where he passed out business cards with his contact information and then sat down with a student and further discussed a tentative plan for action.
The University Reacts
As Cleveland State administration, faculty and students quickly discovered, the boundaries of what is and what is not protected by the First Amendment is not always an easily drawn line.
The Faculty Senate took a week to respond, but in their official statement offered their unwavering support and absolute condemnation of the posters stating that, “Those posters were vile and reprehensible and do not reflect CSU’s values. We do not agree with the posters, and unequivocally condemn their messages. LGBTQ+ students, we stand with you, and will offer any support that you need.”
However, from a legal standpoint a solution is not easily within reach.
“Hate speech is free speech. That’s the simplest way to put it,” said Alan Weinstein, a professor at Cleveland State who holds a dual position in both the Cleveland Marshall College of Law and Maxine Levin College of Urban Affairs.
Weinstein makes it clear that these are the views that he holds as an individual with a specialization in the First Amendment and are not necessarily held by the college of law.
Weinstein explained that the argument currently being had across campus is not hate speech vs. free speech. It is in actuality a conversation of hate speech vs. speech that immediately incites harassment, threat or violence. How we differentiate the two is where the situation becomes sticky. Whether or not something is viewed as harassment or threatening is almost entirely based on subjective feeling Weinstein explained. However, there are some obvious situations, such as when an individual is isolated as a target versus when a whole group is targeted.
“Hanging a noose on a bulletin board is subjectively intimidating. That has real connotations if you’re African American. It might not, and it likely wouldn’t, go over the line to intimidation,” Weinstein said. “But if you hang a noose on the dormitory room occupied by two African American students, now you’ve really targeted individuals in a way that the [single] one on the bulletin board didn’t.”
For Weinstein and the Supreme Court, the greater danger is not allowing the expression of these hateful ideas to be heard. The fear is that once the censoring begins, where does it stop. To combat this, the stance that has been taken in regards to designating something as hate speech or an immediate threat of violence is to be decided on a case by case basis.
“We need the protection of the First Amendment to have the ability to express ideas that the majority really take issue with,” Weinstein said. “Once you open the door to allow anyone’s subjective feelings to stifle free speech, we’re headed down a very dangerous path. It’s hard and I have the utmost empathy.”
Turning his attention once again to the issues surrounding Cleveland State specifically, Weinstein continues addressing Berkman’s initial response. He offers solutions that don’t wholly begin to censor an individual’s right to free speech stating Cleveland State does not have to be neutral in their response to hateful rhetoric.
“[Cleveland State] is free to express the idea ‘we condemn those who discriminate against anybody,’ and that was missing,” Weinstein said. “The cure for the hateful speech is a greater volume of speech affirming the dignity of people and the ability of people to express and choose their identities whatever they might be and that we value diversity. That’s what was needed, and that did happen, but unfortunately [too late].”
Berkman sits in his office, to his left sits Stinnett. Mimicking one another, the Chief Diversity Officer and President of the University cross their right leg over their left and lean back.
His office looks directly out onto campus. His desk and furniture all pointed towards the walls of windows that look down to the streets and sidewalks of campus below – which are all nestled within the frame of downtown’s skyline.
A week prior, students marched up the same sidewalks and stopped outside the Parker Hannifin Administration Center, tilted their heads upwards, screaming for their university president to come down.
Berkman apologizes for his casual dress – he had a dentist appointment earlier in the day. On his jacket lapel, a gold CSU pin, the same pin glinted on Stinnett’s jacket. Both men are towering figures, their positions and stature intimidating, but they open up easily ready to speak to their campus.
Before being prompted by a question Berkman begins and it’s clear that he and the administration want the chance to speak to the students and want them to know that they’re pushing for a change in campus policy.
“The reason that I didn’t say this at the forum, but I’m hoping that I can transmit it here, is because I didn’t want to throw anyone else under the bus at the forum and I didn’t want to get into [who was at] fault,” Berkman said. “I take responsibility. At the end of the day, it’s my responsibility.”
Stinnett, explained that both of them understand the importance of standing up for your beliefs through protest.
“You have two people sitting in front of you that totally respect and understood what [the protesters] were doing, and that’s why I was able to respond in the way that I did because I knew the pain,” Stinnett said. “I needed them to understand that I am just here to listen. We were going to make this right, and we were going to move forward.”
The two men stated that they are proud of Cleveland State’s students response to not only the turnout at the public forum, but also the protests that followed.
“I was proud of [Cleveland State students]. They weren’t violent. They were expressing themselves. I was proud of them. I went to Princeton right across from [Berkman] and I was the student body president of the seminary and we did a demonstration when I was a student there,” Stinnett said. “[Someone] posted some inflammatory remarks about how more black babies had been killed by abortion than slavery. We had a demonstration at Princeton at the time and I spearheaded that. I was one of them as well.”
As a student and a member of faculty at Princeton, Berkman also participated in protests. He recounts one instance where he occupied the President’s office and for days sat in protest of the school’s investment in companies that supported apartheid in South Africa.
“I was them at one time. I wasn’t here. I didn’t see it, but I understand what brought them to [my] door,” Berkman said.
When looking toward the future, Berkman talked incessantly of the necessity for continuous dialogue.
“Wherever it comes out, it’s an unbelievably important dialogue. It’s a national dialogue. We are in a very divisive, difficult, complicated and toxic political environment. I hope that this will lead to a series of dialogues that we can have as a university. There are increasingly few places in the country where you can have dialogue.”
Stinnett has sat down with groups like QSA and other minority groups to ensure that their voices and opinions are heard in the future conversations and execution of said plans.
“We want the students to understand that it’s not just about what happened here, you really need to think outside. Our first line of defense, make sure you are safe, secure, not in a hostile environment,” Stinnett said. “[We want to] inform what you can and can’t do and be fully transparent about what we are doing and then raising your awareness that we need to take these conversations outside of the walls of this institution as well.”
Cleveland State has not been the first host of hate speech on a college campus, but the attention that it has garnered was unique. It has opened up the lines of communication between administration and students, but it has also shown that students do have the power to fight for active change. In Cleveland during the week of protests, Van Jones, political commentator for CNN, addressed the situation at Cleveland State and put it into a broader, national perspective.
“You are the next generation. You get to determine for yourselves what the standards are going to be, what’s acceptable and not acceptable. I am very much encouraging students to always own your power.”
DeBoard has been involved in the process, noting that it is not simply the administration but members of the Board of Trustees who are also concerned and involved in the process. DeBoard gave the administration an incomplete list of concerns that the LGBTQ+ center, specifically, has in regards to safety because they are concerned that the center will also become a target. “They asked for a list of priority concerns which concerns safety and they’ve already got every single one of those things in the works,” DeBoard said. “They came up with money for it and it’s there. A camera for [monitoring] a Graduate Assistant that’s by themselves in the center all the time so they can feel safe, card-swipe access, changing names in the system so that trans individuals aren’t outed and getting more staffing for the LGBT Center.”
DeBoard comments that this is just the beginning of a long conversation, but the administration is actively working with them.
A Closing Statement
Along with people questioning the genuineness of his comments, Berkman has been accused by posters, news headlines and graffiti to be a defender of white supremacy. His response began as only one word. Sadness.
“My whole life mitigates against any notion that I would in any way shape or form politically have any alignment, sympathy, any empathy for that movement. I’m saddened by it, but I understand. How would students know that?” Berkman said. “I can’t tell them that in the 60s, I demonstrated against the war. I have been involved politically my whole life. I feel like all my politics have been progressive politics. People who know me know that’s who I am. The students don’t know that. So I guess I can understand how they can somehow make that connection.”
For Berkman and Stinnett, this is not a problem that will be, or should be, easily rectified. What it has incited is an awareness among students, faculty and administration that there are issues that need to be addressed. A conversation has been started about what is allowed to be posted publicly on campus and administrative response to students, but more importantly the necessity of not only accurately defining the problem but also finding a line that doesn’t infringe on our freedoms.
“Does the LGBTQ+ community have enemies? Yes. Am I one of them? No. Have I become a surrogate enemy here? Unfortunately, but I think that we have time to make it right,” Berkman said. “I have 6 months left [as president] but I really feel that it is a service to you [to continue this dialog]. Whatever might come out, people might change their minds, maybe they will feel that it is an idiotic law and when I think about in many ways I don’t understand it sometimes. But the question that I always come back to is that if there is a line being drawn, who draws the line? Who has the power to draw the line and where is the line drawn?”