A protester waits outside of a controversial debate at Lewis & Clark College Tuesday night.
A protester waits outside of a controversial debate at Lewis & Clark College Tuesday night. Cameron Crowell

Local activists on Tuesday were barred entry from a debate at Lewis & Clark College featuring a prominent advocate affiliated with an organization known for its hateful, often-false rhetoric.

The controversy stemmed from the appearance of Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the Washington DC-based Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)—an organization deemed a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Vaughan was in Portland to debate Galya Ruffer of Northwestern University’s Center for Forced Migration Studies, and her presence deeply divided the Lewis & Clark community.

Arguments emerged on Friday, in a chain of emails on the Lewis & Clark faculty list serv. A steering committee for the debate responded with a letter, sent to students Sunday, acknowledging CIS had been labeled as a hate group, but reaffirming the decision to “show our strong opposition against those perspectives by meeting them head-on.”

CIS describes itself as an “independent, non-partisan, non-profit, research organization” whose motto is “low-immigration, pro-immigration.” However, the organization was founded in 1985 by John Tanton, one of the ideological leaders behind the modern “nativist movement,” who has advocated for white nationalism and the protection of a “European-American majority.

And while Tanton is no longer officially listed as affiliated with CIS, the organization has continued frequently distributing articles by anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, anti-Latinx groups. In addition, Vaughan’s “studies” are frequently the birthplace of “fake news,” like Stephen Miller’s debunked February claim that “several dozen” terrorist attacks were acted out in the United States by people from the seven majority Muslim countries listed in President Trump’s travel ban. In 2014, CIS also released a false study claiming “36,000 undocumented criminals” were released in 2013 by former-President Obama that was widely cited by far-right and mainstream right-wing news sources.

So as you can imagine, Vaughan’s appearance at a Portland college raised a stir.

In its email to students, the debate’s steering committee announced it would be hiring additional security and that the debate would be “closed to the general public,” with entry only allowed to Lewis & Clark students and faculty. It is the only event at the college's annual International Affairs Symposium closed to the public.

“You could call it free speech to an extent, but for us I think it’s more about having an academic discussion and addressing these issues as an academic community,” said Sam Perszyk, one of the event’s organizers. “But also, there’s the reality that there’s a possibility that people from outside groups will try to gain access to disrupt it and we want to keep both our students and our speaker safe.”

The disruptors, in the form of members of the group Portland’s Resistance, showed up as a long line formed for the debate. Organizer Gregory McKelvey, a student at the Lewis & Clark Law School, was not allowed entry when protesters gathered around the venue’s door.

“It’s difficult to think how you could take the stance of, we’re going to encourage debate, but then make that debate only welcome to a few people,” McKelvey said. “They have the right to say what they want, but there is no first amendment right not to be protested. It’s important to show marginalized communities, refugees, the broader community, and America really, that Portland doesn’t welcome this kind of hate speech.”

Organizers didn’t just shut people out. Hours before the debate began, it was moved from the Templeton Campus Center’s Council Chambers to Agnes Flanagan Chapel, with a live stream offered so non-students could watch.

This highlighted a tension of whether a closed debate was really a democratic decision or just enabled Vaughan’s platform to be undisrupted. Lewis & Clark professor of history Elliott Young on Tuesday published a column in Huffington Post titled, “Safe Space For Hate Group At Lewis & Clark College” stating: “If you invite a hate group to campus and want to submit those ideas to ‘rigorous debate and headstrong questioning,’ then open the event to the public.”

Questions also arose over whether paying Vaughan a speaking fee was a tacit donation and further validation of an extremist group. One organizer, Sara Neuner, said she didn’t know whether Vaughan was paid, though she noted Ruffer definitely was.

Each speaker delivered twenty minute planned speeches with interruption from megaphone horns and chants of “No hate, No fear, Refugees are welcome here” from outside. Here's a sense of how it went.

While Vaughan’s speech did not take up the explicit language of white nationalism, her proposal for handling the refugee crisis was developing “safe zones” in home countries rather than taking refugees in. In perhaps the oddest moment of circular logic of the night, Vaughan advocated listening to what refugees wants, saying that “after being safe, they want to return home,” as if sending refugees back weren’t a violation of their safety.

Professors and students followed with questions for the speakers, most of which were directed at Vaughan, who avoided directly addressing being linked to white nationalist groups.

At one point in addressing a question from Young, Vaughan said, “The problem I think becomes when people like you starting crying wolf, calling every person you don’t agree with a hater. Your voice and definition will become diluted.”

To which Young responded, “What do you call a group that disseminates holocaust deniers and white nationalists on their website? Is that a hate-group?”

Both speakers, accompanied by security, hustled out of the chapel immediately after the event, but Ruffer, the debate’s counterpoint to Vaughan, responded to questions in an email this morning.

“At a time in our country when positions such as those espoused by Jessica Vaughan at congressional hearings and on Fox News are scarily taken to be ‘legitimate,’ we need to have more, not less, public debates where we can meet people face to face, expose false facts…” she wrote. “I think it’s equally important that people protested the event. This shows how ready people are to stand up against these views.”

Vaughan hasn’t responded to our questions.

Outside last night’s event, tempers briefly flared, as attendees met the protestors who’d sought to disrupt the proceedings.

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One Sudanese student—who was next in line to ask a question before the session ended—stepped up to address the protesters. He gave an impassioned speech, saying the protestors’ chants had prevented him from being able to ask a question. And he pointed out he was one of the only students from one the seven majority-Muslim countries targeted by Donald Trump’s travel restrictions. Protesters first tried to drown out his voice.

“I can’t fucking go home!” he said, adding that being able to debate Vaughan was, for him, “the closest thing to a solution.”

“That’s not a solution in there,” a protester called back. “Nazis get no free speech.”