Since 2001, more than two hundred people who have been invited to speak on American college and university campuses have been “disinvited” before they could give their talks. It is easy to find news accounts of these events—or non-events. The most recent may be the NYU administration's decision this week to cancel a talk by Nobel prizewinner James Watson, on strategies for curing cancer, six days before it was scheduled to happen, because of student complaints about statements Watson had made on other topics in the past. It is much harder to find stories about academic leaders who rejected demands for disinvitation and clearly explained why. If I were a college president, and a campaign to disinvite a speaker arose on my campus, here is the letter I would write.
To The Campus Community:
Recently, an organization on our campus announced that a particular person would be speaking here at a future date. Many students, some faculty, and a few alumni of our institution have publicly objected to the invitation of this speaker. Some have demanded that his invitation be rescinded, so that he will not be able to use our “platform,” and the imprimatur of our college will not be attached to the controversial things he was expected to say—or to anything he has said or written in the past. It has been alleged that the speaker will make some students feel uncomfortable or unsafe, that his beliefs are repugnant, and that his ideas are not rational or evidence-based.
I have heard these demands, and listened to the arguments of their supporters. I am writing to say that I do not agree with them, to announce that the speaker’s talk will go forward as planned, and to explain why.
First, let’s be clear that this is not a matter of “freedom of speech” in the legal sense. The First Amendment to the Constitution, as interpreted by the courts, says that governments may not abridge freedom of speech, but it puts no restrictions on private institutions like our college. Disinviting someone is unprofessional and rude, but we have the right to disinvite—or to not invite in the first place—anyone we please.
Some will say that if I do not disinvite this speaker, I am therefore supporting him. This is not the case. There is a clear logical distinction between endorsing a person’s claims and beliefs, and giving him an opportunity to express those claims and beliefs. There are many speakers who have come to our campus with whom I disagree, but I did not block them.
In fact, neither my nor anyone else’s personal preferences should have anything to do with this question. To see why, we must consider what our college, or any college, is here for. An institution of higher education is organized around the concept of learning. Learning is why we are all part of this community. Students are here to learn about the arts, sciences, and other disciplines they pursue. Professors are here to learn as well: to learn entirely new things about the natural, social, and humanistic worlds, and to learn how to teach more effectively. The staff and administration are here to make these endeavors possible.
Learning doesn’t just mean going to class, doing homework, and taking exams. If a group of students or faculty members are so interested in hearing, debating, and engaging with the ideas of a person from outside our community that they decide to invite him here and organize and attend an event, I cannot rebuke them. In fact, I congratulate them, for they are engaged in an act of learning that goes beyond what is strictly required of them. They are spending their personal time and energy furthering the central purpose of our institution.
The reputation of our college and the value of the degrees we confer will not be affected by the speakers we host, but it will suffer if we acquire a reputation for stifling unpopular views. A college does not need to “manage” its “brand” like a for-profit company does. All colleges stand for excellence in scholarship; that is the only brand that matters, and disinviting speakers and suppressing thoughts will only cheapen it.
To those who say the speaker may make them feel unsafe, I must point out that higher education is not designed to make people safe. Instead, it is our society’s designated “safe space” for disruptive intellectual activity. It’s a space that has been created and set apart specifically for the incubation of knowledge, by both students and faculty. Ideas that may seem dangerous or repugnant can be expressed here—even if nowhere else—so that they can be analyzed, discussed, and understood as dispassionately as possible. Many of humanity’s greatest achievements originated as ideas that were suppressed from the public sphere. Some, like the theory of evolution by natural selection, equal rights for women and minorities, trade unions, democracy, and even the right to free speech and expression, are still seen as dangerous decades and centuries later.
If you are against this speaker coming here, please also consider this: Some members of our community—some of your friends and colleagues—do want him to visit. By asking me to disinvite him, you are implicitly claiming that your concerns and preferences are more important than those of the people who invited him. Are you really sure that you are so right and they are so wrong? Psychologists have found that people tend to be overconfident in their beliefs, and poor at taking the perspective of others. That might be the case here.
A decision by me to bar this speaker would have far-reaching negative repercussions. It will make everyone in our community think twice before they stage a provocative event or invite a controversial speaker. Cancelling this invitation will not only prevent this person from talking; it will reduce the expression of views like his in the future, and probably chill speech by anyone who could be regarded as controversial. And it will set a precedent that future leaders in higher education may point to if they feel pressured to do the same. All of this would be antithetical to our common purpose—and our institution's social function—of learning and discovery.
Note that it’s especially important for us to be open to viewpoints not already well-represented among our faculty. The professors here are a diverse group, but many studies have shown that professors tend to be more politically left-wing than the population at large. Even the most conscientious instructor may inadvertently slant his teaching and assignments towards his own political viewpoint. Of course, this applies more in the social sciences and humanities than in math or physics, but it does happen. Giving campus organizations wide latitude to invite the speakers they wish helps to increase the range of thoughts that are aired and discussed here.
If you feel that this speaker’s talk might upset you, I offer this advice: Go. Yes, go to the talk, listen to it, record it—if the speaker and hosts give permission—and think about it. Expose yourself to ideas that trouble you, because avoiding sources of anxiety is not the best way to cope with them.
But don’t try to interrupt or shout the speaker down. Take this golden opportunity to train yourself to respond to speech that upsets you by analyzing it, looking up its sources, developing reasoned counterarguments, and considering why people agree with it and whether it might not be as contemptible as you have been told. These are the skills that all members of our community are committed to building.
In fact, if you’re committed to everything this speaker is against, then you should definitely listen to him. John Stuart Mill wrote, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” When you never encounter people who vigorously argue for positions you don’t agree with, you may come to believe that those arguments don’t have merit—or don’t even exist. The argument you imagine your opponents making is probably weaker and easier to dismiss than the argument they would actually make if they had the chance. So listen to the other side's case in order to strengthen your own. In other words, know thy enemy.
Of course, you don’t have to listen to speakers you disagree with. That’s the beauty of our system: We are all committed to the broad goal of learning, but we are never forced to attend to people we can’t stand. If you want to protest this speaker, do so outside the venue, and do not block anyone from attending. Hand out fliers or arrange for other speakers to present counterarguments or different ideas. As Justice Louis Brandeis said, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
As the leader of this community of scholars, I would be doing the opposite of my duty were I to force silence on this or any other speaker. Therefore, I decline the requests to disinvite him. And I encourage all campus groups and organizations to invite the speakers they want to hear, knowing that I will respect and support your efforts to learn and engage with their ideas.
Your College President