Caving on Commencement Speakers Is Censorship, Not Scholarship

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It’s the time of year when efforts heat up by students and faculty to get speakers they dislike disinvited from campus. Every spring, the campus “disinvitation” movement seems to get more intense, and this year its participants have claimed some high-profile scalps.

On Tuesday, former University of California Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau announced he would withdraw from his address at Haverford College in the face of student protests. Dr. Birgeneau, who seemed to most like a safe choice, was apparently unwelcome because of his alleged mishandling of Occupy Wall Street protests on his campus.

One day earlier, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew from Smith College’s commencement after an online petition by students blamed Lagarde as being “a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies implanted in some of the world’s poorest countries.”

The highest profile “success” of a campus disinvitation movement this spring was when former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew from Rutgers University’s commencement after months of intense protest by faculty and students. The faculty objected primarily to Rice’s role in the Iraq war and the execution of the War on Terror.

While Birgeneau, Rice and Lagarde reportedly “withdrew,” it strikes me as unlikely this took place without some encouragement by administrators who got cold feet in the face of angry students and faculty. If the speakers had refused to withdraw, they might have suffered the fate of Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis University earlier this year. Hirsi Ali, an atheist, activist and fierce critic of the treatment of women in Islamic countries, was set to be honored with an honorary degree from the Massachusetts university. When students rallied against her, she refused to bow out. So Brandeis made the decision for her by officially disinviting her in April.

Not all disinvitation movements are successful. Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs successfully spoke at his alma mater, Howard University, on Monday, despite some objections. And, last year, big names, including Fareed Zakaria (a TIME columnist) and Greta Van Susteren, weathered a push by students at the University of Oklahoma and Georgetown, respectively, to get them disinvited as commencement speakers.

Students and faculty have the right to protest speakers and to criticize their colleges for choosing speakers they dislike. Yet to function as a true “marketplace of ideas,” the university community must be open to hearing from people from different walks of life, professions, experiences and philosophical and political points of view. When students (or faculty, who should definitely know better) work to exclude a speaker from campus, they are thinking like censors, not scholars. A scholarly community should approach speakers with even radically different points of view as opportunities to be engaged, not as a political loss that must be avoided at all costs. Exercising a little intellectual humility might lead students and faculty away from asking “what can I do to get rid of the speaker?” and towards “what might I learn if I hear this person out?” After all, if you’re only willing to hear from people with whom you agree, it’s far less likely you will learn new things.

Universities have only themselves to blame for this mess—not just for caving to pressure, but for teaching students the wrong lessons about the value of free and robust discourse. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), of which I am the president, has found speech codes—policies that heavily restrict speech that is protected under the First Amendment—at 59% of the more than 400 colleges we survey, and deals every day with campus censorship of often even mildly offensive speech. Colleges have taught a generation of students that they have a “right not to be offended.” This belief has inevitably morphed into an expectation among students that they will be confirmed in their beliefs, not challenged. It’s no wonder, then, that they apply increasingly strict purity tests to potential campus speakers.

Colleges could stem the tide of disinvitation season by encouraging intellectual curiosity, humility, the reservation of judgment, recognition that one does not know everything and the simple act of granting the benefit of the doubt. Not coincidentally, these are precisely the lessons universities should be teaching students. Their failure to instill these habits has led to campuses that have become depressingly intolerant. If this trend is not reversed, disinvitation season will only end when campuses give up on inviting speakers who have anything to say.

Greg Lukianoff is the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the end of American Debate.

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