Students Skirmish With General McCaffrey

By Chad Chevenot of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation

The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (CJPF) and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) launched an Emergency Coalition Against Censorship and Propaganda (ECACP) in response to revelations that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has been paying taxpayers' money to television networks in exchange for power to censor television scripts which don't support approved, anti-drug messages. A proposed consensus statement of ECACP was sent to prospective Coalition members.

On Monday, January 24th, Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey was scheduled to speak about drug policy at the Kennedy Political Union Forum at American University (AU). The Emergency Coalition, with the help of American University's Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), mobilized to plan a First Amendment Forum on the AU campus at the Kay Spiritual Life Center.

The SSDP Forum addressed the government's clandestine censorship practices. It was held immediately before McCaffrey's speech. Roughly eighty people attended, and the agenda of speakers included:

  • Andrew Jay Schwartzman, President of the Media Access Project
  • Jamin Raskin, Professor of Law at AU's Washington College of Law
  • Roger Pilon, CATO Institute's Vice President for Legal Affairs
  • John Dinges, Professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism
  • Robert Corn-Revere, Former Chief Counsel of the FCC and member of the
    Hogan and Hartson law firm
  • Patricia Aufderheide, Professor at AU's School of Communications

American University's SSDP experienced a wild boost in campus prestige during the Forum. The principle issues of the War on Drugs were presented to many, questioning students for the first time. The two primary media groups from AU - the weekly newspaper, The Eagle, and the student-run, closed circuit broadcast station ATV - covered the event. Daniel Forbes, the journalist from who originally broke the ONDCP censorship story, was present at the First Amendment Forum and, also, during McCaffrey's speech later.

Between the time of the First Amendment Forum and McCaffrey's address, protesters gathered outside the School of International Service (SIS) building where McCaffrey planned to speak. Voices were raised against cultural censorship as well as increased military aid to Colombia. Many professional and homemade signs were visible.

SSDP member Steve Silverman donned the McCzar puppet and tied up a person dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Protesters chanted and banged drums so loudly that McCaffrey was forced to use a microphone in a small room where he wouldn't have needed one otherwise. SSDP members passed out flyers suggesting questions for students entering the building to ask McCaffrey during the Question-and-Answer (Q and A) session following his speech.

SSDP members also distributed about 100 white gags for students to wear during McCaffrey's speech, visually expressing objection to the Czar's censorship of free media. Many students wore the gags during his speech and asked McCaffrey several penetrating questions during the Q and A. Unfortunately, other students not associated with SSDP chose to interrupt McCaffrey, behavior not appreciated by many in attendance.
Despite freezing temperatures and snow on the ground, protesters stayed outside the building for an hour and half during the entire McCaffrey address and discussion. After the Czar's presentation, many in the audience joined with the protesters, chanting and gathering by one side of the building to confront McCaffrey on his only way out. Additional security arrived at the scene. When McCaffrey left the building, about 75 to 100 protesters had come together, screaming at a deafening volume.

As McCaffrey drove away, protesters marched past the security in the direction McCaffrey's car left. Quickly, demonstrators at the head of the march began running down a sidewalk, crossing through a parking lot, and toward the street. McCaffrey's car turned in their direction but stopped for a red light right next to the sidewalk.

Demonstrators caught up to McCaffrey's vehicle, shouting at him to "Go Home", and waving their signs directly in front of his car. Protesters interrupted traffic momentarily and soon police officers herded the protesters out of the street. "It was extremely exhilarating," said one defiant student.

McCaffrey was surely left with the impression that things are getting worse for him. At a minimum, he must have been really annoyed, and perhaps surprised, by the level of opposition he met.

We were able to do all of this by working in a coalition and maintaining peaceful, professional standards for our response to McCaffrey. I recommend attending the regular vigils and demonstrations in your area or organizing one of your own. It would be great to see McCaffrey hounded at every event he attends.