Constitution Day speaker sparks protest event

Michael Anton, a former Trump official, published a controversial essay in July in which he disagreed with the 14th Amendment’s granting of citizenship as a birthright.

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Close to 60 undergraduate and law students, professors and community members gathered in the lobby for the counter-event to Anton’s speech. Photo by Hannah Denham, ’20.

Hannah Denham, Grace Mamon and Marilyn Sample

On Tuesday afternoon, two different floors in Leyburn Library were occupied for the same purpose: to celebrate Constitution Day.

What was the difference?

One of the events was planned in direct protest of the presence of a former official of President Donald Trump.

Michael Anton speaks to a room of at least 100 students, faculty and community members in Northen Auditorium. Photo by Hannah Denham, ’20.

Former Trump official Michael Anton spoke for Washington and Lee’s annual Constitution Day lecture, which was held on Sept. 18, a day after the official day this year. Professor Lucas Morel, head of the Politics Department, invited him.

Anton was formerly the deputy assistant for strategic communications for the U.S. National Security Council and now lectures at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

Morel said he invited Anton to speak for “content diversity” after last year’s speaker series on “Conversations in the Age of Trump.”

“We were really critical of Trump last year,” Morel said. “Let’s show our students the side of defense of Trump. Sixty-three million people voted for him for a reason.”

At least 100 people packed into Northen Auditorium for Anton’s speech, in which he advocated for the Constitution to be interpreted with a consideration for the intentions of the authors.

Early Tuesday afternoon, ten students met with Anton and Morel for a lunch discussion of Anton’s September 2016 essay, “The Flight 93 Election.” Anton urged students to ask questions about his essay, which spoke out against universities, news media and “Third World foreigners” as corrupt and enemies of conservatism and Americanism.

“Come on, somebody must’ve been triggered,” Anton said in the auditorium.

In July, The Washington Post published an op-ed by Anton, in which he argued citizenship shouldn’t be a birthright, as determined by the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

“Islam is not a religion of peace,” Anton said during the question and answer session after his lecture on Tuesday. “Islam restores the connection between religion and civil law.”

Morel ended the lecture with many hands still raised by audience members.

Lena Hill, the dean of the college at Washington and Lee University, said this event was a way for her to get to know the students by seeing them engage in a public way.

What Hill noticed?

“The sophistication with which they not only thought about his speech today, but the writings they’ve been exposed to, and had already deeply engaged before they came,” Hill said.

The main floor of Leyburn told a different story Tuesday afternoon.

Close to 60 undergraduate and law students, professors and community members gathered in the lobby for the counter-event to Anton’s speech. Photo by Hannah Denham, ’20.

Close to 60 undergraduate and law students, professors and community members gathered in the lobby for the counter-event to Anton’s speech. Many volunteered to take turns reading from mini Constitution booklets.

Philosophy Professor Melina Bell said she and Spanish Professor Ellen Mayock organized the counter-event to recognize Constitution Day in a way that celebrated diversity.

“Universities are notoriously slow to change,” Bell said. “There are fewer students that are active in trying to change the culture.”

Bell said last spring, more than 50 faculty members met to discuss how they could make the university’s culture more inclusive in regards to race, class and gender. Their first meeting was last week, and the group’s first step was to address Anton’s presence on campus.

“Why has he been invited?” Bell said. “This is a time at the university where we’re having these discussions about diversity and making people feel welcome.”

Professor Ted DeLaney opened the counter-event for Constitution Day with a reading from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Photo by Hannah Denham, ’20.

History Professor Ted DeLaney opened the event with the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution, noting that the word “slave” was not included in the Constitution anywhere, even during its discussion of The Three-Fifths Compromise. He added there was no mention of the oppression faced by women, Native Americans or other minorities during this time.

“Today, as we reflect on the Constitution and the strains that it seems to be under and the strains that our democracy seems to be under,” DeLaney said, “I ask you to keep these limitations in mind.”

After volunteers read through each of the 27 amendments, Professor Mohamed Kamara, chair of the university’s Africana Studies program, was the first to take the floor for comments.

“The Constitution legislates our rights, but it guarantees nothing,” Kamara said. “It takes the goodwill of those who are supposed to be its interpreters to do the right thing.”

He spoke on what he referred to as the loopholes of the Constitution, which could allow a group of people, or individuals within a group, to be marginalized.

“We have to stay vigilant…every minute, every second of our lives, and act all the time when we need to and because we need to,” Kamara said. “This ensures that our own rights and the rights of others, regardless of where they came from or where they’re going, are protected all the time.”

Andrew Crean, ‘22, and Esther Assenso, ‘22, were caught in the counter-event while studying on Leyburn’s main floor.

“We heard that it was something for people who didn’t support the speaker downstairs,” Crean said. “We decided we’re going to stay here.”

“It was very empowering,” Assenso added.

Morel said he first heard about the counter-event through an email blast.

“We have to encourage students to think freely,” he said. “Once we start using the university as a platform for our own personal political aims, I think we’re going backwards, not forwards, especially in the example we are setting for our students.”

Daniel Rhoades, ‘19, who attended the response event, said he felt there was a difference between political beliefs and moral beliefs.

“I’m 100 percent in favor of making sure that everyone is exposed to all sides of an argument,” Rhoades said. “But there’s a difference between exposing people to sides of an argument and providing financial support for clearly unethical behavior. So I would argue that there are very more justifiable ways to expose students to a diverse array of arguments, without resorting to offering financial support to individuals who clearly display unethical behavior.”

The same organizers of this event are hosting a panel on Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 5 p.m. in Hillel 101 to discuss Anton’s speech. It is open to the campus community, especially those who couldn’t attend either event because of religious observance of Yom Kippur.