Jeff Ares, a University of Vermont alumnus who now works for Goldman Sachs, was scheduled to speak to business students at the school on Friday. Given Goldman Sachs's sizable role in the financial meltdown, this didn't make Vermont's contingent of Occupy Wall Street supporters too happy.
Occupy Vermont participants planned a "showdown" at the talk to protest Goldman Sachs and to urge business students to take up careers away from Wall Street. Talk of a protest led Goldman Sachs to request that the event be canceled, according to the AP.
The AP story includes a quote from a notable free speech advocate, who appears to condemn Occupy Vermont for their role in getting the plug pulled:
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston lawyer and chairman of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said by effectively pressuring Ares to cancel the talk, the activists involved were likely involved in “a conspiracy to restrict free speech.”
Harsh words. Occupy Wall Street protesters and their supporters scattered around the world seem pretty dedicated to democracy — accusing them of trying to suppress free speech is a serious charge.
Sure enough, Occupy Vermont didn't take kindly to that suggestion. Occupy Vermont participant Matthew Cropp published an open letter to Silverglate on the group's blog that claims Occupiers never asked for the talk to be canceled, and that Goldman Sachs is the real enemy of free speech. Here's an excerpt:
Our goal was to use the event as an opportunity to engage in a public discussion about Mr. Ares’ employer, which was the stated purpose of his presentation. Indeed, in our event invitation, we urged all attendees to read up on the activities of Goldman Sachs so that they might meaningfully contribute to a constructive dialog. As far as I know, no one from our movement called on his talk to be canceled; what we desired was the opportunity to offer alternative perspectives in an environment of intellectual freedom (a right that your organization purports to promote).
And here's where the story takes an unexpected twist. Harvey Silverglate responded with an open letter of his own, which was also published on the Occupy Vermont blog.
According to Silverglate, AP reporter Dave Gram "mangled" his views and took his quotes out of context. In fact, Silverglate supported the right of the protesters to make their perspective on Goldman Sachs heard, as long as they also respected Ares's right to speak as well. An excerpt from Silverglate's response:
If demonstrators get together with an aim to drown out the speaker, they are in a conspiracy to restrict free speech. On the other hand, if the speaker fails to show up because he does not want to confront those who disagree with him, that is the fault of the speaker, not of the audience.
One final note: Facebook postings suggest that Occupy Vermont participants weren't entirely sad to see Ares's talk canceled. An administrator on the Occupy Vermont Facebook page posted a link to the AP story on the ABC News site with the caption "Victory!" You shouldn't glean too much from a one-word Facebook posting, especially from an ostensibly leaderless movement like this one, but it's worth noting. (I wasn't able to confirm who's running the Facebook page while writing this post.)
UPDATE: I spoke with Matthew Cropp, who in addition to penning the open later is one of the 14 administrators on the Occupy Vermont Facebook page. "My intended meaning was to celebrate the fact that, in spite of the cancellation, our proposed attendance was nonetheless sparking a discussion in our community about Goldman Sachs," he said via email. "I still would have much preferred to have been able to attend the actual in-person event, but the fact that Goldman's cowardice in the face of scrutiny didn't slip beneath the media radar was cause for celebration."
File photo of "Goldman Sucks" sign was taken by Shay Totten at the October 2 Occupy Wall Street solidarity rally in Burlington.