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A Speech Too Far

What are the limits for academic departments when inviting speakers to campus?

By Jay Schalin (editor)

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March 19, 2013

The issue of campus speakers has, until now, focused on the rights of invited conservatives to speak without harassment and on the disparity of liberal speakers over conservative ones. But a new side to the issue has been raised due to the recent and controversial “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) event on February 7 at Brooklyn College.

The participants at the BDS event sought to rally students against Israel in highly emotional, irrational fashion—urging people to “boycott, divest (of investments in companies that do business with Israel), and sanction” the only prosperous, liberal democracy in the Middle East.

The BDS speakers were initially invited by students, which made it a simple matter of students’ right to free speech. However, the political science department chose to co-sponsor it, giving the event a degree of official imprimatur by the school. The action of the political science department forced a new question: exactly where are the boundaries or limits for an academic unit—a department, school, or university—to invite speakers to campus? After all, the BDS event seemed to serve no intellectual purpose, only political ends, and permitted no dialogue with those of a contrary view.

After Ursinus College philosophy professor Jonathan Marks published an article questioning the Brooklyn political science department’s sponsorship of the BDS event, we at the Pope Center decided this issue is too important and too complex to be allowed to disappear until the next outrage. So we asked a panel of distinguished academics and reformers (including Marks) for their opinions and received the following essays. The participants are:

KC Johnson, Professor of History, Brooklyn College.

Jonathan Marks, Associate Professor of Politics, Ursinus College.

Adam Kissel, former VP of Programs at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Robert Shibley, Sr. VP of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Charles Geshekter, Emeritus Professor of History, California State University at Chico.

Lessons from Brooklyn’s BDS Flirtation

By KC Johnson

The recent anti-Israel “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) event at my institution, Brooklyn College, provides a textbook case in how an academic institution and its member units ought not to handle an address by non-academic speakers.

The BDS speakers were invited by a student group—not a problem in itself. But then, Brooklyn’s political science department formally (and highly unusually) voted to affiliate itself with the talk, which a student group had organized. The event’s website listed the department as having endorsed the speech—a reasonable assumption given the department’s traditional anti-Israel bent. After much criticism from the media, especially the Daily News, the political science professors were forced to backtrack a bit; their less-than-eloquent explanation that “we just f---ing co-sponsored it” rang hollow. The idea that academic departments ought not to formally endorse political candidates or causes seems like a common-sense policy.

Then, once controversy arose, the department refused to offer a rationale for its decision. Despite press requests, sixteen of the department’s seventeen members invoked the academic equivalent of the 5th amendment: fourteen refused all comment, while two others generically cited “academic freedom” as an explanation as to why the department signed onto the BDS event. (An item posted on the department’s website purporting to “clarify” things similarly declined to reveal the department’s criteria for co-sponsoring non-academic events.) The one specific rationale provided by a department member was that Political Science looked to encourage views that are “heterodox and that challenge the dominant assumptions of society.” This comment implied that the department would co-sponsor an address from David Duke, whose views are, if nothing else, heterodox. If a department is unable or unwilling to offer a public rationale for its decision to formally affiliate with a non-academic address, the decision was likely inappropriate.

Such actions by the political science department raise the question whether colleges and universities should go further in ensuring a rational discourse—beyond prohibiting departments from making political endorsements and demanding transparency for departmental sponsorship decisions.

In the ideal world, the answer to this question would be no. Departments could be trusted to exercise their academic freedoms in a responsible manner. Ideologically, pedagogically, and temperamentally diverse departments would use internal discussions to filter out crackpot ideas—such as a public university’s department formally voting to affiliate itself with those who advocate boycotting, solely on the basis of nationality, professors from a democratic ally, as occurred in the BDS incident.

Of course, we’re a long way from this ideal academy. As Mark Bauerlein perceptively analyzed nearly a decade ago, the prevalence of groupthink in many humanities and social science departments has demonstrated effects of the law of group polarization. (Hence an academic department whose members all seem to oppose Israeli security policies could think it’s a good idea to affiliate itself with BDS, a movement reflecting an extreme version of the faculty’s commonly-held assumptions.) In this respect, inappropriate decisions like that which occurred at Brooklyn should best be viewed as a symptom of a broader problem. University leaders ignore this problem at their own peril: an academy beset by groupthink will experience more and more public relations fiascos like Brooklyn’s BDS flirtation, and thus further undermine popular and political support for public higher education. A college that wants to avoid embarrassments like what occurred that Brooklyn, then, will need to take proactive steps to ensure a pedagogically and intellectually diverse faculty.

Speaker Controversies and the Aims of Liberal Education

By Jonathan Marks

When invitations to campus speakers spark controversies they tend to have the same demoralizing arc. A department asks a pro-this or anti-that speaker to campus. Anti-this or pro-that groups declare themselves offended and demand that the invitation be rescinded or that the Ann Coulter in question be balanced by a Michael Moore. The event’s defenders call it a test of our commitment to freedom of speech. The event takes place. Yet, despite all the uproar, nothing is learned.

The missing voices in the debate are defenders of liberal education. Attacks on hate speech and defenses of free speech dominate the field because educators refuse to think about the aims of liberal education and how invited speakers advance or hinder those aims. It is easy to explain this failure. No authority tells us what a liberal education requires; no algorithm tells us whether a controversial speaker meets the requirements; and once we articulate standards, someone’s ox will get gored. Yet if we, as liberal educators, claim that we shape students to judge hard questions independently and well, how can we refuse to exercise judgment about how invited speakers serve the educational mission?

Colleges should allow student organizations to invite speakers. But once we decide to let the Nazis march through Skokie (as the courts famously did in 1977-78) the question of how best to handle the march remains. Moreover, not only students but also professors and administrators sponsor events and have a duty to determine what kinds of events advance the college’s mission.

Although there is no authority to tell us what liberal education requires or what kind of speech meets the requirements, some general principles can be uncovered that are not controversial. First, cultivating independent judgment is among the foremost aims of liberal education. Second, promoting debate and reflection on campus is an important means of achieving that aim. Third, campuses on which multiple viewpoints are shouted out are not necessarily reflective campuses that encourage thoughtful debate.

Two modest conclusions follow. First, we should try to sponsor speakers who, whatever they argue, exemplify the scholar’s view that the truth is more important than any position, and that to justify one’s own claims one must consider the strongest arguments for opposing claims. Second, if we determine that there is something to be learned from a speaker whose primary goal is advocacy, or a student group has invited such a speaker, we must ensure, whether by sponsoring post-event discussions, or by having a respondent, or by preparing our students to engage thoughtfully with the speaker, that the aim of the event becomes reflection rather than conversion.

It is not always easy to distinguish between hucksters and intellectuals, or propagandists and scholars, and our prejudices may lead us to make the wrong judgment. But, as the educators of the next generation, we are remiss if we fail to make those judgments.

Sponsoring Controversial Speakers

By Adam Kissel

The College Atheists student group has invited Friedrich Nietzsche to advocate his views against conventional morality. Should the Philosophy Department cosponsor this “proselytizing”?

Should the School of Government cosponsor a talk by Ronald Reagan advocating the end of Cuba’s existence? After all, Reagan has few academic credentials.

Should Charles Darwin be allowed a chance to make the best case he can for the theory of evolution, cosponsored by the Biology and Geology Departments, even if every member of both departments disagrees with him?

A single member of the Music Department believes the Beatles are at the forefront of Western music. All of his colleagues strongly disagree. When he invites Paul McCartney to explain the Beatles’ music, should the department cosponsor?

These examples suggest several reasons a department might sponsor a highly controversial speaker. He might challenge the foundations of the field. He might have relevant expertise outside academia. He might provide one of the best arguments available for a minority view. The department might have the intellectual humility to entertain wild ideas. Students may want to explore the topic. The speaker might be so notorious that anything he says will be pedagogically valuable.

In no case does sponsorship imply agreement with what the speaker might say. After all, what will he say? Prior review of the speech would be anathema to academic freedom and free speech.

No organizational limit need be placed on the event: no mandatory alternative view or Q&A session. All to the good if the speaker spurs conversation afterward, pro or con, but the department has no responsibility to create “balance” around a single event.

As a matter of academic responsibility, however, sponsorship has limits. Lending a department’s name to an event may indicate many things but primarily these:

1) Relevance. The speaker is likely to mention topics germane to the field. The Music Department would not cosponsor Darwin’s talk except to signal that music will significantly be involved.

2) Quality. The speaker is likely to speak in a way worthy of the department. This does not mean peer-reviewed statements or Ph.D.-level arguments. It means that the School of Government officially believes Reagan will advance campus discussion about Cuba. The department’s credibility is on the line, but due diligence generally does not extend beyond good academic judgment of the likely academic contribution of the speaker.

In rare cases the speaker will be so clearly unacceptable that no reasonable department would sponsor the talk—for example, when all reasonable people agree that the speaker plagiarizes or commonly lies about the subject of the talk—but a notorious public figure might still make the cut.

These concerns highlight the fact that the department’s credibility is on the line both when it sponsors highly controversial speakers and in the pattern of speakers it sponsors. This credibility involves many different audiences including other scholars, the administration, students, and the public. It cannot please everyone all the time.

The academic credibility that usually matters most comes from peer review: would an objective reviewer affirm that the department, over time, has been a good academic citizen? Has it reasonably represented the field’s mainstream and margins over time? Have its speakers contributed to the academic dialogue?

Hamilton College Professor Robert Paquette has publicly promised to donate $1,000 to the college if it can name five conservative speakers it has sponsored over the past twenty years. The college has failed to do so. Rather than get up in arms about a single controversial speaker, academic critics should follow Paquette’s lead and judge an academic unit on its merits over time. I predict plenty of findings that will threaten departments’ academic credibility.

The Peculiar Evil of Silencing Expression

By Robert Shibley

What kinds of expression are outside the boundaries for invited speakers on our nation’s college and university campuses?

Simply put, the fewer limits on such expression, the better.

In 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed students at Columbia University. After a hostile introduction from Columbia President Lee Bollinger, Ahmadinejad launched into the expected eyebrow-raising statements. As The New York Times put it: “He said that there were no homosexuals in Iran— not one—and that the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews should not be treated as fact, but theory, and therefore open to debate.”

Surely, many would say, no merit exists in exposing Columbia students—or any Americans—to this kind of fact-free expression. And doesn’t it create a hostile environment for gays, Jews, or others? Shouldn’t they be spared these ravings?

In a word, no.

Why? John Stuart Mill said it best in his 1859 treatise On Liberty:

[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

To receive a truly liberal education, university students must confront ideas that seem wrong, alien, or offensive. Creating an environment in which this cannot happen allows students to hold on to their beliefs through prejudice rather than reason. Who benefits from this? Certainly not the students, and certainly not American society. The only beneficiaries are those whose power relies on elevating their own beliefs and expression beyond the reach of questioning. They may be good people; they may even be right. But in a free society, no person and no viewpoint is entitled to unquestioning, uncritical obedience.

Americans can afford to hear out Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We can afford to hear out the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. We can afford to hear out the Sierra Club, the Tea Party, and even the Klan. But that’s not why we protect free speech. We protect it because we can’t afford not to hear out those with whom we disagree, if we are to be secure in our own beliefs and secure in our liberty.

Boundary Work Needed on Campus

By Charles Geshekter

The modern university should be a community of inquirers and error-seekers. As a house of intellect, it permits diverse viewpoints about any topic concerning the natural world and its numerous life forms, with the understanding that all ideas and theories merit scrutiny. By using empiricism and reasoned debate within the boundaries of scholarly discourse, students should learn that any “pure and simple truth,” as Oscar Wilde noted, “is rarely pure and simple.”

In recent years, students and faculty have sought to silence speakers with whom they disagree, to block the free exchange of opinions, or to prohibit altogether ideas believed to cause offense. University administrators have abrogated their responsibilities by allowing campus members to stray far beyond the academic pale, permitting pernicious actions that obliterated the boundaries of acceptable behavior in a university.

Many faculty and students on the academic left, hostile to civil discourse on numerous topics, have become arbiters of what is or is not safe to say. As moral hypocrites, their ideology of envy, contempt for conservative viewpoints, and demands for equal outcomes have undermined the ideals of free speech and equality of opportunity.

Academic departments have ample freedom to select speakers who address disciplinary topics from an orthodox or dissident viewpoint. Whenever a department invites speakers onto campus to address any controversial topic—climate change, racial preferences, American exceptionalism, same-sex marriage, Islam and the West, feminist pornography, immigration policies, healthcare reform—its members should consider providing safe speaking space for some one holding an opposite opinion. Students should be encouraged to take seriously the notion that they might be wrong.

Outside of their classrooms, students must learn how academic boundaries and intellectual terms of engagement work in open public forums. The boundaries of freedom of speech and modern science mean “the right to offend in the pursuit of the truth and the responsibility to check and be checked.”[i]  The best response to any free speech controversy is “more speech, not enforced silence, Justice Louis Brandeis observed long ago.

If the subject is highly contentious, the moderator should warn the audience that interruptions and disruptions will not be tolerated. Those unable to control themselves - threatening speakers or stifling inquiry -demonstrate behavior that is beyond the pale of the university and should be removed from the audience.

Bard College president Leon Botstein once remarked, “we need to teach our students that the civilized assertion of one’s beliefs is an obligation, an honor, and a pleasure.” That leadership by example must come from the faculty themselves.

“If you describe things as better than they are, you are considered a romantic,” said Quentin Crisp. “If you describe things as worse than they are, you will be called a realist. If you describe things exactly as they are, you will be thought of as a satirist.”

The latter is an apt description of anyone who decries the deplorable tolerance of ant-intellectual behavior on today’s college campuses.


 

 


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