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Students for an Inclusive Campus Push Back Against John Ashcroft’s Lecture

On Thursday, Nov. 1, Students for an Inclusive Campus sent copies of a letter addressed to President Scott Bierman, Interim Dean of Students Cecil Youngblood, Director of Student Engagement and Leadership Jen Walsh, members of the Funding Board, and the Young Americans for Freedom student group, protesting against the upcoming visit to Beloit College by John Ashcroft, a lawyer and former governor, senator, and U.S. Attorney General under President George W. Bush. Ashcroft will be delivering a lecture on civil liberties and national security at Beloit on Wednesday, Nov. 7.

The letter, which was from Students for an Inclusive Campus (SIC), an organization formed by students of color, stated that they find it “unacceptable that an institution that prides itself on anti-racism would bring a person whose actions and violent policies led him to be under investigation for conspiracy to torture unduly detained suspects who were identified chiefly through the use of racial profiling,” and pointed out that they do not take issue with Ashcroft’s “political affiliations” but with “the tangible effects of his actions.” The letter accuses Ashcroft of overseeing the “detention of thousands of U.S. citizens without probable cause by racial profiling and on the basis of religious affiliation (post-9/11),” and of being a “co-sponsor of the Defense Against Marriage Act to federally prohibit same-sex marriage,” as well as being attributed to increased rates of juvenile arrests while he served as Governor of Missouri and of being under investigation by Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights. The letter ends with a passage addressed to Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), an ideologically conservative group that is sponsoring Ashcroft’s lecture. The letter tells YAF that it is supporting a politician who stands against personal freedom.

Ashcroft, 76, was elected governor of Missouri in 1984 and 1988, where he enacted tougher sentences for gun crimes and increased funding for law enforcement. Under his leadership, law enforcement officials increased by 63% from 1985 to 1992; capacities for prisons increased by 72%; and the first hate crimes legislation was passed. Ashcroft was elected to the United States Senate in 1994, and on March 30, 2000 he convened a Senate hearing on racial profiling, stating profiling was unconstitutional and that police officers should be required to keep statistics of their actions. In 2000, Ashcroft became the only congressman to be defeated for re-election by a dead person when Democratic candidate Mel Carnahan was elected two weeks after his death in a plane crash. Ashcroft was replaced in the U.S. Senate by Carnahan’s widow.

Following his loss in 2000, Ashcroft was chosen by President George W. Bush for the position of Attorney General, where he was a major supporter of the Patriot Act, passed on Oct. 26, 2001. The Patriot Act has been criticized for its authorization of indefinite detentions of immigrants; suspension of court ordered warrants for searching property; and Section 215’s authorization of the NSA’s mass data collection program of cell phones, search histories, and internet surveillance. In June 2004, Ashcroft issued a memo stating his support of the use of torture after photographs of abuse against detainees in an Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were published by CBS News. Although the Bush administration argued these were isolated occurrences, humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International, the Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch accused the U.S. of state-sanctioned crimes and human rights violations. Twenty-eight soldiers would later be removed from duty or charged with assault by the U.S. Department of Defense, and documents prepared by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2003 known as the “Torture Memos” authorized torture techniques that would become used in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, including sleep deprivation and nudity. These authorizations would later be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, stating the Bush policy broke the Geneva Conventions, a treaty the U.S. signed following the second World War that described the basic human rights of prisoners of war and detainees.

Ashcroft has been a prominent figure in the fight against terrorism and as a supporter of the Second Amendment. In 2009, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Ashcroft could be sued for the wrongful detention of Abdullah al-Kidd, a U.S. citizen arrested in Dulles airport in 2003 on his way to study in Saudi Arabia, who was held for 15 days in maximum security prison and 13 months supervised release but was never charged with a crime or called as a witness to any crime. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately unanimously overturned this ruling.

Grace Gerloff’19, the current chairperson of SIC, told The Round Table that the purpose of the letter was “expressing disappointment in the school and YAF for bringing Ashcroft here,” and that “we’re not angry about the conservative speaker series as a whole but more so, Ashcroft’s crimes against humanity that his political career has brought about.” SIC is finalizing plans for “creating a safe counter-space in which students who feel threatened by Ashcroft’s presence or students who decide to attend and then wish to leave will have a place to de-stress.” Further discourse against Ashcroft’s visit can be found in the Op-Ed section.

Andrew Collins’20, president of Young Americans for Freedom, responded to SIC’s letter by stating that the Human Rights Watch, as an NGO,  has “absolutely no legitimate investigative authority since it is neither a federal, state, municipal, nor even international law enforcement agency,” although it had only called for an investigation. Collins pointed out that it is “a matter of genuine debate as to whether or not we as a country should choose to prioritize [national security or civil liberties] at the expense of the other,” and that Ashcroft “was not personally responsible” for the treatment of the thousands of detainees, many of whom were undocumented immigrants. Collins stated that Ashcroft’s view on same-sex marriage is “a legitimate political and social issue worthy of debate.” Collins also confirmed that only 5% of the funding for Ashcroft’s visit will come from Beloit College, with the remainder coming from YAF’s national organization. He stated that it is “ironic that an organization with the word ‘inclusive’ in its name would prefer to exclude a speaker on the basis of political disagreements.”

Ashcroft will be speaking at 7:30 p.m. in Moore Lounge on the second floor of Pearsons on Wednesday. SIC will be holding a meeting on Monday, Nov. 5 from 8-9 p.m. in the Office of Inclusive Living and Learning. Beloit College Administration was aware of the letter from SIC but had no further comment when contacted by the Round Table. The next speaker from YAF, American political scientist Peter Berkowitz, is scheduled for a talk on freedom of speech and liberal education on Thursday, Nov. 15.

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