by Greta Drefke '19
Every fall new college students seek to escape a world in which their parents filter the experiences to which they are exposed. But are they exchanging one set of filters for another? Since 2000, colleges across the United States have revoked the invitations of over 300 previously scheduled campus speakers. (Villasenor) Student reactions against the views of these speakers typically caused these revocations. Many colleges are disinviting more controversial speakers in fear of backlash from students. For example, in 2016, the University of California, Los Angeles disinvited Ben Shapiro, a controversial columnist, three days before his scheduled speech after protestors demanded the school cancel his visit. (Stephens)
Sometimes student protests even turn violent. In early 2016, students at Middlebury, a small liberal-arts college, used violence to express their disapproval of a speaker’s views, rather than engage in a discussion of his work. Last March, a student group asked Charles Murray, a political scientist and author, to speak at about his most recent book about class division in America. Murray is most commonly known for writing the 1994 book, The Bell Curve, which argues that a statistical correlation exists between socioeconomic status and race with intelligence. While speaking, dozens of students shouted him down and pulled fire alarms. As he and a professor attempted to leave the campus, the two were violently pushed and shoved. The professor suffered a concussion after a student grabbed her hair and twisted her neck. An estimated 100-150 students participated in the protest and the college disciplined sixty-seven students. (Stephens) Since the protest, Middlebury has avoided inviting speakers with controversial views.
A higher education is rooted in encouraging the exchange of ideas. Colleges’ filtering of speakers with controversial views does not help students. It only hinders students’ ability to fully engage with all sides of current issues. As a result, students are less exposed to challenges to their political views and opportunities to learn how to engage constructively with people with different opinions.
As Robert Zimmer, the president of the University of Chicago, declared, “It is not the proper role of the university to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive…. Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas” (Zimmer). Colleges should not shelter their students from uncomfortable conversations. These conversations can lead to greater awareness of others’ experiences and perspectives. Colleges have a responsibility to include all students in inclusive discussions, not to protect the students from the discussions themselves.
When colleges disinvite speakers with controversial opinions, they limit freedom of speech on campus. Some students misunderstand what this means. They believe freedom of speech is the right to express one’s beliefs as long as they are not offensive to others. However, Norman Siegal, a civil rights lawyer, explains that freedom of speech is not just protected when a person agrees with the speaker, but also when “he or she strongly believes that the speaker’s views are repugnant, offensive, and yes, even bigoted and hateful, yet still allows him or her to speak” (Siegal). Freedom of speech allows the voicing to alternate perspective to those commonly held by students. As Zimmer explains: “Preventing others from speaking and listening to one another is arrogating to oneself the right of freedom of expression, but denying it to others” (Zimmer). Censoring certain perspectives on campuses undermines the existence of healthy exchanges of ideas among students.
One study emphasizes why sharing diverse views on campus is important. A poll of hundreds of colleges across the United States found that less than one-fourth of college seniors “often spoke with people whose political views differed from their own” (Belkin). By inviting speakers with differing views to voice their opinions, schools expose the students to different views they likely will interact with after leaving college.
Valid reasons to disinvite a campus speaker can exist. Sometimes, the cost of security for a speaker may be beyond the school’s budget. The University of California, Berkeley budgets over one million dollars each year for the security of speakers. (Stephens) More importantly, colleges are justified in rejecting a speaker who advocates physical violence against others. Colleges should not allow direct threats of harm to anyone. However, unless the words of a speaker directly call for violence, colleges should permit speakers of a wide range of beliefs to speak.
Many students reject this notion. They prefer to isolate themselves in an environment where their beliefs go unquestioned. A recent study by the Brookings Institution, a non-profit public research organization, found that 51% of students believe disrupting a speaker by loudly shouting so that the audience cannot hear the speaker is acceptable. The study also found that 20% of students believe that using physical violence to prevent a speaker from speaking is acceptable. The survey also showed that a less than half of students would like to “create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people” (Villasenor). These studies show that students on their own may not understand the importance of a diverse community of ideas.
In the real world, students will not be sheltered and difficult topics cannot be avoided. Students must be prepared to live in a society where they will confront opinions they do not share. Students need the help of colleges to prepare them for this world. Harvey Klehr, a politics and history professor at Emory University affirms: “The world is a nasty place. If you want to confront it, change it, you have to understand the arguments of nasty people” (McLaughlin). By learning how to respect their opponents, understand their perspectives, and sympathize with their intentions, college students will be better equipped to create positive change in an unfiltered world.