Thursday, September 8, 2016

Why Colleges And Universities Should Not Disinvite Speakers

Since 2000, more than 140 people who have been invited to speak on American college and university campuses have been “disinvited” before they could give their talks, usually after objections from students. It is easy to find news accounts of these events, or non-events: this handy database details 342 successful and unsuccessful disinvitation campaigns. One of the most prominent recent examples may be the New York University administration's decision in September 2016 to cancel a lecture by the Nobel prizewinning biologist 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. Later in the same academic year, Watson was also disinvited from giving a talk on the same topic at the University of Illinois.

Notably, these events were not reported in any mainstream media outlets, which mostly seem to regard suppressing lectures as normal business in academia today. Indeed, campus groups are less likely to invite controversial speakers in the first place, given how likely it is that such invitations will meet with opposition and possible cancellation. It is much harder to find stories about academic leaders who clearly 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 has been invited to speak here. 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 Some have demanded that his invitation be rescinded, so that he will not be able to use our “platform,” and the imprimatur of our college will not be attached to the controversial things he was expected to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 grounded in solid evidence.

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 U.S. 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 legal 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. We do not ban books from our library or websites from our network, so we do not ban speakers from our grounds. Constitutional law does allow for some non-commercial speech, such as explicit incitements to violence or disorder, to be punished by the state. And I would certainly agree to interrupt or block a speech that was directly threatening anyone’s immediate physical safety. But beyond that, it is not my place to decide who is and is not permitted to speak here.

In fact, no one’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. Even though I may not like all the speakers they are selecting, I still love the fact that they are bothering to select speakers at all.

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,” and it should not act like a for-profit company in this respect. All colleges stand for excellence in scholarship; that is the only brand that matters, and disinviting speakers and suppressing thoughts will only cheapen it.

Even speakers who espouse ideas you find dangerous and are sure you would never accept—like a creationist, a 9/11 “truther,” a genocide denier, or someone who argues that “rape culture” is a liberal myth—may be worth hearing. If you find out what they claim for evidence, and the kinds of words, phrases, and arguments they use, you can better rebut them yourself—whether you are reasoning with other people, or questioning your own beliefs. Listen to the other side's case in order to strengthen your own. In other words, know thy enemy.

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 ironically 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. Canceling 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. When you encounter troubling ideas on our campus, try to desensitize yourself to emotional reactions by keeping in mind that ideas themselves cannot hurt you.

And please do not try to distract, interrupt, or shout down the speaker. It is a natural impulse for us to suppress speech that we don’t like, just as it is natural for us to retaliate against or outlaw behavior we don’t like. That’s why we have laws to protect unpopular speech and institutions to foster and study it. You can 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 intellectual skills that all members of our community are committed to building.

In fact, if you’re already 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, don’t deserve to be heard, 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.

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 peacefully, 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.” And if just being in the speaker’s presence will cause too much discomfort, you may avail yourself of the truly safe space of your dorm room or apartment, or the company of other like-minded students.

Please be careful, though, about making a habit of avoiding or trying to suppress uncomfortable ideas. In the wider world there are no spaces where you can be safe from the thoughts in other people’s heads, so if people are stereotyping you or otherwise judging you unfairly, nothing that restricts speech here on our campus will solve that problem. Holding negative thoughts and uttering negative speech are a part of human nature that our college does not exist to protect you from. On the contrary, we exist to arm you with the intellectual tools to understand, analyze, and dispute incorrect ideas. Shutting off those ideas does nothing to inoculate you against them, and may ironically make you even more vulnerable in the future.

The same is true of our college—of our community—as a whole. Once an organization stops challenging itself with ideas, old or new, its becomes intellectually flaccid and surrenders any claim to scholarly excellence. Valuing comfort and community over openness to ideas is perfectly fine for many organizations. Religions, charitable causes, and political parties are free and sometimes even wise to exclude ideas and people that they disagree with. But the essential common value in a university is free inquiry for the purpose of learning, and by joining the university we have all sacrificed our right to be safe from ideas we disagree with. Community is important here, but openness is fundamental. It’s for that simple reason that I will not disinvite any speaker who has been legitimately invited to talk to us.

Ruth Simmons, the former president of Brown University, told the graduating Smith College class of 2014, “The collision of views and ideologies is in the DNA of the academic enterprise. We don't need any collision-avoidance technology here.” I could not agree more. Therefore, as the leader of this community of scholars, of our academic enterprise, I would be doing the opposite of my duty were I to force silence on this or any other speaker. I hereby 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

NOTE: This was originally published on 8 September 2016 and was revised and updated on 4 June 2017. If you represent a mainstream online or print publication and would like to publish a version of this essay, please contact me.


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  3. "Instead, it is our society’s designated “safe space” for disruptive intellectual activity." Nicely put.

    I'm curious what your source is for: 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.

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