November 27, 2020

Frist Filibuster

Last night about 9:30 I was walking across campus, and I came across the Frist filibuster, an event that had until then existed only in the media for me, even though it has been going on for nearly a week, no more than 500 yards from my office.

The filibuster is a clever bit of political theater dreamed up by Princeton students. The idea is to mimic an old-time legislative filibuster in which people speak without interruption for heroic lengths of time (unlike the wimpy virtual filibusters one sees in the modern Senate), and to do it on the Princeton campus in front of the Frist Campus Center, which was donated by the Frist family, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who is now deciding whether to ban or curtail filibusters in the U.S. Senate. The goal is to galvanize opposition to a change in the filibuster rules. In keeping with my usual nonpartisan policy, I’ll leave aside the merits of the Senate filibuster issue here, and focus on the campus filibuster.

A website has live webcam images of the filibuster.

Last night at 9:30, two people were keeping a lonely vigil in front of the Frist Center. One, a thirtyish man, was standing at a makeshift podium and reading softly from a book, into a microphone. The other, a younger man, was in a small tent structure nearby, sitting and watching behind a table that bore a modest supply of food and drink. After a few minutes a young woman, apparently a student, arrived and took over as speaker. She started reading aloud from a photocopied article, which might have been assigned reading for a course.

I caught up with the first speaker as he was leaving. He was a not a university person, just an interested citizen from a nearby community who had come by over the weekend and had signed up then for last night’s half-hour speaking gig. He said he had started by reading Brown v. Board of Education, which he said illustrated the importance of political balance on the Supreme Court. After that he read from Stephen Jay Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History, because “Gould is my favorite biologist.” (The off-topic reading may seem odd, but I’m told it was common in old-time filibusters, where the goal was to fill time after all of the debating points had been made.)

Princeton has allowed the filibusterers to do their thing. This is clearly the right policy, notwithstanding the statements of a few commentators, some of whom should know better, that Princeton should send in the campus cops and break up the filibuster. Trying to ban a peaceful, nondisruptive, student-organized protest would be a terrible idea, and would quite possibly be illegal under Federal and/or New Jersey law.

Even crazier, in my view, is the claim that these events demonstrate inappropriate liberal bias at Princeton. Two things have happened: (1) a small subset of the student body has spoken against a change in the Senate filibuster rules, and (2) Princeton as an institution has decided to let them speak. Neither event demonstrates that Princeton as a whole has any political bias.

You may believe for other reasons that Princeton tilts to the left. That’s a topic for another day. But I don’t see how the filibuster, and Princeton’s response to it, shows any overall bias on campus. You may ask where the counter-protest is; and it’s true that there hasn’t been one. It’s part of the genius of the filibuster as political theater that there is no obvious counter-protest tactic. Holding a counter-filibuster would just draw more attention to filibustering.

Would Senator Frist want Princeton to stop the filibuster now? I doubt it. Even leaving aside the free-speech issue, the Senator is surely smart enough to see that a university clampdown is the perfect ending for the students’ political theater: the powerful authorities break the filibuster, suppressing the speech of a political minority, apparently to please a wealthy donor. That’s not an image the Senator would want associated with the anti-filibuster position.

And so the Frist filibuster goes on, and on, and on. They say they have speakers lined up at least through Thursday.

Comments

  1. Cypherpunk says:

    Be interesting to see if they can beat the record for the longest filibuster in the Senate (http://www.newsflash.org/2004/02/tl/tl012381.htm), 75 days. That one was an effort by a group of Southern senators to stop passage of the Civil Rights Act back in the 1960s. Apparently the longest individual filibuster was by good ol’ boy Strom Thurmond, also to stop a civil rights bill, but he only managed a wimpy 24 hours and 18 minutes.

    I have to say that it’s amusing and ironic to see these students fighting to hard to support a measure with such a checkered history. Perhaps a counter-protestor could put up a sign listing famous filibusters of the past, so the students could find out just what they are fighting for. But probably they’re not looking at the big picture any more than the Republicans in the Senate are.

  2. jxd215 says:

    As a participant in the Frist filibuster, I can attest to the fact that we are indeed aware of the “checkered history” of the filibuster. However, we believe that the use of the filibuster as a protection for the minority party is more important than whether or not one agrees with the merits of its use in any particular case. Given all the backroom negotiating that probably comprises the large part of Senate politics, a filibuster effectively forces dialogue and compromise behind the scenes.

    In this case, although many of us are opposed to the seven judges under consideration, we are specifically protesting a majority effort to change the rules in the middle of the game. We do not view our cause as a partisan issue, and have therefore been joined by a number of Republican, Independent, and Libertarian participants as well. While I can’t speak for all 200+ people who have filibustered, I believe most of us would protest such a power grab even if we identified with the majority party.

    Finally, it is true that the filibuster has been used in the past for less desirable issues as such as the one against the Civil Rights Act. But I think that this instance is actually a great example of how a filibuster can generate dialogue and compromise — a number of the Republicans supporting the filibuster were opposed to the bill on the grounds that it would expand federal power too much, not because of the moral or racial issues. Once amendments were made to address those comparatively minor objections, the bill passed. So in the end, the system worked because a bipartisan majority senators agreed with the fundamental issues of the legislation, overruling an extremist minority.

    So yes, we are aware of the big picture, and we think it’s worth fighting for. The system of checks and balances built into our government has worked since 1789, and it shouldn’t be attacked now.

  3. Amos the Poker Cat says:

    I think your comments, by their incompleteness, betrays a bias.

    … deciding whether to ban or curtail filibusters in the U.S. Senate.

    There are seven instances of filibusters (i.e. the requirement of a super majority vote) in the Senate enumerated in the Constitution. The confirmation of judges is not one of them.

    What is at issue is revoking a Senate rule concerning one, and only only instance of a filibuster, not all filibusters. This would return the rules for confirming judges back to the way they were for 214 years.

    The system of checks and balances are between the various branches of government, not between political parties. The Constituion is silent on the issue of political parties.

  4. Amos,

    In writing this post, I made a deliberate choice to avoid explaining the detailed backstory about Senate filibuster rules. Instead, I decided to describe Sen. Frist’s options in as few words as possible, and move on to my first-person story about visiting the student filibuster. I’m happy to leave the argument about the merits of the “nuclear option” to the lawyers and politicians.