President Obama Praises University of Missouri Protesters: 'I Want an Activist Citizenry'

ABC News' George Stephanopoulos sat down with President Obama.

ByABC News
November 15, 2015, 5:08 AM

— -- President Obama weighed in on the recent protests at the University of Missouri for the first time in an exclusive interview with ABC News’ Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos.

The president lauded the students’ activism, but also warned they need to maintain an open dialogue with those who hold differing views.

“There is clearly a problem at the University of Missouri, and that's not just coming from students. That's coming from some faculty,” the president told Stephanopoulos Thursday at the White House. “I think it is entirely appropriate for students in a thoughtful, peaceful way to protest what they see as injustices or inattention to serious problems in their midst.

“I want an activist student body just like I want an activist citizenry, and the issue is just making sure that even as these young people are getting engaged, getting involved, speaking out that they're also listening,” he added. “I'd rather see them err on the side of activism than being passive.”

The president, who protested against apartheid as a college student himself, offered particular praise for the university’s football coach and team, which threatened to boycott team activities until the institution’s president resigned following his response to racially charged episodes at the school.

Their decision “harkens back to a powerful tradition that helped to bring about great change in this country,” the president said.

“The civil rights movement happened because there was civil disobedience, because people were willing to go to jail, because there were events like Bloody Sunday,” he said. “But it was also because the leadership of the movement consistently stayed open to the possibility of reconciliation and sought to understand the views - even views that were appalling to them of the other side.”

The president shared his concerns about students on some college campuses that have tried to shut out speech they disagree with, including attempting to keep controversial people from speaking on campus, and instead urged them to be “courageous” in confronting those who hold different views.

“You don't have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas. Just out-argue them. Beat them. Make the case as to why they're wrong. Win over adherents,” he said. “I do worry if young people start getting trained to think that if somebody says something I don't like, if somebody says something that hurts my feelings, that my only recourse is to shut them up, avoid them, push them away, call on a higher power to protect me from that.

“Does that put more of a burden on minority students or gay students or Jewish students or others in a majority that may be blind to history and blind to their hurt? It may put a slightly higher burden on them,” he added. “But you're not going to make the kinds of deep changes in society that those students want, without taking it on, in a full and clear and courageous way.”

Obama said he has urged his own daughters, Malia and Sasha, to stand up for injustice.

“We talk about this at the dinner table. And I say to them, ‘Listen, if you hear somebody using a racial epithet, if you hear somebody who's anti-Semitic, if you see an injustice, I want you to speak out,’” he said. “’I want you to be firm and clear and I want you to protect people who may not have voices themselves. I want you to be somebody who's strong and sees themselves as somebody who's looking out for the vulnerable.’

“But I tell them, ‘I want you also to be able to listen,’” he added, “’I don't want you to think that a display of your strength is simply shutting other people up. And that part of your ability to bring about change is going to be by engagement and understanding the viewpoints and the arguments of the other side.’

“And, you know, I tell you, I trust Malia in an argument,” the president concluded. “If a knucklehead on a college campus starts talking about her, I guarantee you she will give as good as she gets.”