Online Protesting With Integrity: A Personal Account

It used to be that protests were actual events that happened predominantly in the physical world.  Today, protests are often confined to the virtual world – with real people represented by their avatars and the contested terrain more likely to be the comments section of a Facebook post than the National Mall.  This new normal seems to me a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, people in power today are just as likely as the rest of us to have social media profiles – Facebook pages and Twitter accounts abound – which means that they are generally more accessible and more likely to be held accountable than the elite in previous generations.  On the other hand, the cloak of anonymity and the clipped nature of speech online make substantive dialogue difficult.  Commenters can hide behind aliases and make wild accusations with few repercussions, and a 140-character limit lends itself more to snappy comebacks than well-crafted logic.

The evolving nature of protests, then, requires those of us with something to say to adjust our expectations and adapt our tactics, especially if we want our protests to be taken seriously.  Recently, I found myself part of an online protest – one of what turned out to be a flurry of campus protests over commencement-season speakers.  The experience caused me to question whether my online identity could (or should) be congruent with the person I was offline.  Could I “blend” my two identities with integrity?  Would I be able to resist the clipped comments in favor of substantive conversation?  Could I embrace my position of protest while still being open to other points of view? 

In April, HGSE Dean James Ryan announced that the 2014 convocation speaker would be Colorado State Senator (and HGSE alum) Michael Johnston.  Believing that the choice of convocation speaker reflected in part the institution’s values and dismayed that one of Johnston’s most celebrated accomplishments was the passage of bill that tied fully half of teachers’ evaluations to discredited student growth measures, I somewhat impulsively posted a comment to the online press release.  In posting that comment, I made two decisions that would become consequential.  First, I decided to register under my own name, thinking that this kind of transparency might encourage a more civil conversation.  And second, I decided not just to register my displeasure at Johnston’s selection but to take the additional step of requesting that the offer be rescinded.  I was of two minds about this second decision:  on the one hand, it seemed a dramatic step and perhaps ill-suited to open academic discourse, but on the other hand I thought it was a way to further signal the depth of my disagreement.

In hindsight, the decision to request that Johnston’s invitation be rescinded was useful for another reason.  It galvanized opposition and generated conversation in a way that I did not at first fully anticipate.  Specifically, this opposition appeared in two forms.  First, my initial comment provoked spirited pushback from in the comments section.  Calling me an “armchair critic” and urging me to look more carefully at Johnston’s record, one commenter prompted me to closely examine the impact of SB-191 (Johnston's signature bill) on teachers and to engage in a conversation – online and offline – about just what it meant to stake out my position in opposition to his invitation.  Second, in part as a result of these online and offline conversations, a group of students and alumni – only some of whom I knew previously – found common cause to research Johnston’s work in more depth and reach out to Colorado educators for personal testimony about how his bill is affecting their work.  Combining policy statements, news items, and personal testimony, we crafted a statement of protest to make the case that Johnston's policy agenda reflected poorly on HGSE as an institution.  In relatively short order, 150 students and alumni added their names.  Before long and to my surprise, the statement caught the attention of Diane Ravitch, the Washington Post, Bloomberg News, and a handful of Denver-area news outlets.

The opposition to the protest – specifically to its call for Johnston’s invitation to be rescinded – was swift and assertive, centered on its alleged attack on free speech.  But looking back, I think that the call to rescind the invitation played a vital role.  After all, we could have merely expressed our disagreement to Johnston’s invitation – either in a public forum or in private conversations – but such a statement (no matter how well-researched or strongly worded) is too easy to dismiss.  It would be too easy for commenters who supported Johnston’s policies and his place on the podium to say, in effect, “Disagreement duly noted,” and then move on.  By staking out a position more extreme, I – and others who signed the statement – drew people into a conversation.  A conversation well worth having, in my opinion.  In my offline identity, I have made it a priority to talk to anyone who disagrees with me – to be decent and civil and open to diverse views, even if I do not change my mind.  Thus, when pressed, my online persona sought to do the same:  to respond with firmness but decency. 

Days before the convocation, Dean Ryan sent an open letter to the HGSE community that not surprisingly reaffirmed Johnston’s invitation but that also added a much-appreciated layer of nuance to the conversation.  Particularly noteworthy was his willingness to engage more transparently around who is given high-profile platforms in the future.  Perhaps he would have extended this offer without the statement of protest, but we cannot know for sure.  We can only accept it at face value, which I certainly do.  Another positive outcome was an offer from Mike Johnston to meet with students the day before his speech.  To his great credit, he fielded questions from about 20 students and stayed over two hours (when only 45 minutes were scheduled).

In the interest of open dialogue – online and offline – I attended Johnston’s conversation with students, and I wrote to Dean Ryan and then posted a version of my message to him in the comments section.  In the days that followed, I also responded to several Facebook posts about the issue and received appreciative emails from colleagues who were also wrestling with how to express their views but who were less willing to blur the boundary between their offline and online lives. 

Far from a rebuke to our right to free speech, I believe the right to protest (itself a form of speech) – when done with civility and integrity, online and offline – is the essence of our civic responsibility.