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Campus Speakers - Hate Speech or Free Speech?


Congratulations! You have landed yourself a dream job. Ahead of all other candidates, you have been named President of a major American research university. There are only a few of these plum jobs available, relative to the entire scope of employment possibilities in the country. And along with the prestige that comes with this position is a rather generous compensation package, amounting to several hundred thousand dollars. You manage a large faculty that is pursuing cutting-edge research, and the students are among the elite nationwide. What could be the down side to this job?

Well, there is one. Sometime during your tenure, it is likely that a college political group will invite an outside speaker to come and give a lecture, and the prospect of this engagement will spark protests on campus. This will be publicized in the college journal, and will also be picked up by national news outlets. How you handle this will not only affect your future prospects in this position and have implications for the entire university, but may even be the latest national test case testing the lengths and limits around freedom of speech.

Outside speakers breathe life and vigor into a university, providing perspectives outside the experience of the school’s students and faculty. I recall attending several guest lectures during my years at Johns Hopkins, most notably independent presidential candidate John Anderson, shortly after the 1980 campaign. Yet it seems that only in recent years have sharp controversies arisen over campus invitees. Some examples include:

After much back and forth between the school and his lawyers, white Nationalist speaker Richard Spencer may speak at the University of Florida in October. Spencer spoke recently at Auburn University, and was denied permission to speak at Michigan State University.

Following protests, conservative speaker Ann Coulter pulled out of a planned speech at Berkeley, calling it “a sad day for free speech.”

Earlier this year, Charles Murray, conservative author of The Bell Curve, had a speaking engagement disrupted at Middlebury College by student protesters.

If you are the president at a university with a group that seeks to invite one of these speakers, how should you react? To what extent should you weigh the first amendment guarantee of free speech and your interest in vigorous debate versus your desire to maintain safety and harmony on your campus?

Courts have made clear that the ideal of free speech is not unlimited, so as university president, you have some wiggle room to carve out your school’s own policy. On the other hand, you need to make sure that you are not just letting the prospect of protest preempt your own judgment; you cannot cede decision making power to a group of dissenters who threaten upheaval and potential violence.

It is no coincidence that the cases cited above all involve conservative speakers and protests against them. Besides the obvious explanation that most universities are predominantly liberal institutions, there is another aspect here that is not often mentioned: conservative campus groups and their allies appear to be using free speech as a cudgel against their opponents. By inviting speakers whom they know to be controversial, they expect to incite those whom they see as maintaining a liberal bias on campus. This leads to stories in the media in which they can be portrayed as defenders of free speech, against the intolerant left. But what if the speakers have nothing to offer other than provocation and hate? Should such speech be defended? Is it worth it devoting university time and resources to such speech?

It has been years since I wallowed in law school, and I don’t have the resources to do extensive legal research and analysis on this topic. At the same time, putting myself in the place of the university president, I offer a possible standard by which to judge this controversy and make a reasoned decision.

It’s a simple test: Will the invited speaker provide a benefit to society overall and, more narrowly, to the campus? If not, does the risk of harm outweigh the value of free speech and debate? Of the speakers cited above, one passes the test, two do not, and one narrowly fails.

Here is Richard Spencer, in his own words:

“Martin Luther King Jr., a fraud and degenerate in his life, has become the symbol and cynosure of White Dispossession and the deconstruction of Occidental civilization. We must overcome!”

“Immigration is a kind a proxy war—and maybe a last stand—for White Americans, who are undergoing a painful recognition that, unless dramatic action is taken, their grandchildren will live in a country that is alien and hostile.”

“Our dream is a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans. It would be a new society based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence."

And Milo Yiannopoulos, again quoting directly:

“Behind every racist joke is a scientific fact”

“My theory is that women simply can't get along with each other or work well together.”

“America has a problem with fake hate crimes. The Left is always searching for the next big outrage, and sometimes when the pressure gets too high, they just decide to make them up.”

The problem with Spencer and Yiannopoulos is that they seek to be provocative without having their statements grounded in reasoned analysis or research. In that vein, using the test I propose above, I conclude that they benefit neither society (because their language offends and has no redeeming quality) nor the campus (by raising the prospect of unnecessary dissent and even violent reaction to a speech that does not enhance learning).

Charles Murray is different. While I recognize that the Southern Poverty Law Center condemns what they call his pseudoscientific views, he is a social scientist by training, and he has conducted research for decades. While it is not difficult to find fault his conclusions, his points can be the subject of debate, which was the point of his Middlebury appearance—before it was disrupted by protesters. His speaking engagement does benefit society, as well as the campus; though provocative and perhaps offensive, this is the point of free speech, which is to air even misguided ideas and inspire vigorous argument. What about the risk of harm? It is true that liberal dissenters did cause mayhem and violence, but as I said before, we cannot let this prospect dictate all such decisions.

Ann Coulter provides an interesting case, as she does have an impressive background. While studying history at Cornell University, she helped found The Cornell Review. She graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1988, where she was an editor of the Michigan Law Review. At Michigan, Coulter was president of the local chapter of the Federalist Society and was trained at the National Journalism Center. She subsequently worked as a law clerk in the US Court of Appeals and later for the Senate Judiciary Committee.

However, she doesn’t seem to apply her history and law training to offer disciplined discourse. Here is a sampling of her quotes:

“I think there should be a literacy test and a poll tax for people to vote."

“You will find liberals always rooting for savages against civilization."

“"I don't really like to think of it as a murder. It was terminating Tiller in the 203rd trimester. ... I am personally opposed to shooting abortionists, but I don't want to impose my moral values on others." --on the murder of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller.

So I have to conclude that her proposed appearance at your university provides benefit neither to society nor your campus, based on the same reasoning as that for Spencer and Yiannopoulos.

This is just my advice to you, Ms./Mr. University President, and you are free to take your own position, upon advisement with faculty and university leadership. If you fear pushback from the right, keep in mind that you are not censoring anyone’s right to speak—just not on your campus, at this time, with these particular views and statements.

You may like my reasoned analysis, but here is where even reason breaks down—What if the proposed speaker is the current President of the United States (or one of his cabinet members)? His statements are arguably as divisive and un-grounded as those of Spencer and Yiannopoulos, and provide limited educational benefit for the school or society as a whole. So will some university leader somewhere preemptively limit the President’s right to speak on his campus? I’m not sure if and where it may happen, but I will be interested in seeing how that plays out.

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