Free Speech vs. Campus Safety: the Disinvitation Dilemma

Academic Freedom, Diversity, Information Access, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Joyce Johnston

Since 2000, colleges have withdrawn no fewer than 319 invitations to scheduled speakers, 11 in 2016 alone. Although one disinvited speaker claims that conservatives are unequally targeted by liberal campuses, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Disinvitation Database shows that in the last 15 years, challenges and rejections have come from both ends of the political spectrum. At first, the disinvitations appear to be a straightforward question of First Amendment rights on campus, but the situation is actually not so simple.

Milo Yiannopoulos, Photo Credit: Flickr/Kmeron
University of Washington students started a petition in support of disinviting Milo Yiannopoulos. Photo credit: Flickr/Kmeron

Take, for example, the most recent rejectee, Milo Yiannopoulos, nixed by the University of Washington for a laundry list of offenses. Admittedly, Yiannopoulos is one of the most deliberately infuriating folks on the planet, whose appearance at DePaul University in May caused a riot when activists rushed the stage. In a petition to the university president on Change. org, University of Washington students decried his record for egregious harassmentbigotrycondoning sexual violence, and inciting his followers to engage in similar acts of harassment, intimidation, and coercion against minority communities.

Perhaps because his stance is so extreme, Yiannopoulos’ experience focuses the issues for administrators. If college campuses, for instance, are famously a protected haven for vulnerable young students, then are they obligated to forestall a possible riot in the interests of public safety? On the other hand, does disinvitation implicitly criticize the students’ ability to hear out opposing views in a civil manner? Ben Shapiro, an ultra-conservative also cancelled by DePaul after his own disturbance at CSU-Los Angeles, described the dilemma succinctly: “Because I’ve been met with violence at other campuses, this raises security concerns. So in other words, they can’t keep their own students from assaulting people… basically, we now have the rioters’ veto.”

Further, Yiannopoulos deliberately traffics in hate speech, a charge also leveled at controversial speaker John Derbyshire when Williams College canceled his invitation in February due to “a history of writing racist, homophobic and misogynist views.”  The irony was that Derbyshire had originally been invited as part of Uncomfortable Learning, a student-led initiative to bring thought-provoking speakers to campus, yet it was student protests that inspired the school’s president to shut Derbyshire down.

Attempting to expand students’ world views is one of higher education’s most important charges, but the border between First Amendment rights and hate speech is extremely unclear. Is it more important to showcase diverse opinions — even extreme ones — or to disavow those whose viewpoints are repellent? By hosting a speaker, does a school tacitly endorse his or her views? If administration gives in to a student group’s protests, is it endorsing those views instead? When student groups clash, whose voices should be supported?

Perhaps colleges should consider a truly elegant response to the dilemma, devised by Yale University’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program to promote intellectual diversity. In May, the group held its second annual “Disinvitation Dinner,” complete with keynote speaker Ray Kelly, who regaled the group with the story of being shouted down by protesters, then cancelled mid-speech by Brown University. Since Buckley himself was a celebrated conservative, it will be interesting to see whether the Program will show its good faith by inviting rejected libertarians, liberals and others in future.  If so, “The dinner will shine a much-needed spotlight on one of the most baleful trends in higher education: the growing intolerance of unfashionable opinions.”

Joyce Johnston has been writing and speaking on digital intellectual property and virtual instruction for more than 20 years. As a non-librarian, but a proud member of the Virginia Association of School Librarians, she has provided updates on intellectual property at its annual conference for the past 10 years. While on the Executive Committee for the 700-person World Conference on Educational Media and Technology (a/k/a/ EdMedia), she serves on task forces on undergraduate research, evaluation of digital instruction and community wellbeing at George Mason University. Early entry into online instruction led to fascination with educators’ construction of their virtual identities, then most recently to a growing concern over ownership of that identity. She is currently tracking two related issues: first, the ways that the EU’s right to delist (better known as “the right to be forgotten”) allows its citizens to expurgate their digital profiles worldwide. Second, she monitors the collapse of the EU-US Safe Harbor agreement, which means that no one knows what personal data can be collected from employees of multinational corporations and schools, or how that data may be used.

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