How Canceling Controversial Speakers Hurts Students

February 08, 2017

The riot at the University of California at Berkeley last week that forced campus officials there to cancel a scheduled talk from the controversial conservative Milo Yiannopoulos is the most recent testament to how pressing the problem of campus speakers has become for colleges and universities across the country. Higher-education administrators everywhere have had to wrestle with the question of how to respond to the wishes of their many constituents to invite controversial speakers.

Berkeley officials made a concerted effort to allow the speech to take place, but surprising numbers of administrators elsewhere have settled the matter by rescinding the invitation. Over the last few years, a host of elite institutions — Brandeis University, New York University, and Williams College among them — have rescinded invitations to high-profile, contentious speakers. In almost every case, the disinvited speaker was a leading light from the political right.

Understandably, colleges want to make students feel safe on their campuses, now more than ever. The hateful rhetoric suffusing the nation’s most recent presidential election and the profoundly anti-immigration agenda of the Trump administration have put many people on edge and made academic leaders feel their roles as protectors even more acutely than before.

As admirable as their intentions are, however, we have to wonder whether the gains that administrators make in sheltering students from potentially hurtful speech come at too great a cost to academic freedom. When academe gets in the business of suppressing voices that it doesn’t like and limiting students to only those views that it broadly sanctions — no matter how popular those views are in the culture at large — is free speech safe anywhere? Moreover, do we do our undergraduates any favors by shielding them from the "deplorable" views of the big bad conservatives beyond the ivory tower?

In so intensely regulating the speakers permitted to visit campuses, college leaders risk making their institutions just the sort of liberal echo chambers that abetted the ascent of a president at odds with virtually every principle that academe espouses — openness, complexity, and civility, to name only a few. If students are denied the opportunity to see for themselves that the world is full of people who don’t think as they do, don’t believe what they do, and might even dislike them for nothing more than their demographics, they will be inestimably less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship.

The well-intentioned efforts of their colleges to curate what they hear holds out to them the false promise of a world in which they never come into contact with ideas diametrically opposed to their own. In so doing, colleges leave students far less capable of combating those ideas. Not only do they miss out on vital practice in responding to uncongenial viewpoints (e.g., arguments against abortion, same-sex marriage, government regulation of the economy), but they are also deprived of the chance to cultivate one of the faculties most essential to persuasion — empathy.

Our nation is diverse in so many respects, and, while many valuable advantages accompany this rich diversity, it confronts us with a number of hard challenges. In order for diversity to work, we have to be able to listen to and understand one another. Students who have not been asked frequently enough to look at the world through eyes not their own will have a far more difficult time making the empathic leap from their limited points of view into another’s. They will remain interpersonally handicapped, better trained to scream and brandish signs at their opponents than to sit down with them and possibly win a new convert.

We cannot ignore, however, the real dilemma that administrators confront when faced with the prospect of a controversial speaker. Most administrators are academics and ought to respect the sacrosanct right of academic freedom, but they are also business leaders charged with protecting a brand. Consider Williams College’s recent brush with this issue. A provocative student group wanted to bring the conservative writer John Derbyshire to campus, not because all its members supported his views but because at least some of them planned to refute those views. However, they should have taken a moment to anticipate the kind of press to which the event, as planned, would have inevitably given rise: "Williams to Host Notorious Racist" is not a headline that any college president wants to find himself having to explain to alumni.

Canceling the speech, however, was a missed teaching opportunity for the leaders at Williams. The students’ idealistic hearts were in the right place: They aimed to get all the ideas out in the open, in the hope that, in Darwinian fashion, only the fittest would survive. But their approach was way off. This was fundamentally a framing issue that faculty and administrators should have worked with students to overcome rather than dismissing the proposal out of hand.

No, it would not have done for a student group to bring a speaker of Derbyshire’s stature with the intent to engage him on their own. No matter how intelligent Williams’s student body is, this simply wouldn’t have been a fair fight. Surely a less objectionable alternative would have been to stage the event as a debate rather than a lecture; in so doing, the students might have brought in any number of pundits from the swelled ranks of the liberal intelligentsia to oppose Derbyshire’s message.

Just as students could stand to become more business-savvy and shrewd in dealing with the speaker conundrum, administrators could stand to become more academic, remembering the ideals that make higher-education institutions what they are. Forbidding speakers who offend or who do not share our views simply isn’t a viable response. It turns colleges into hypocrites and opens them to not-entirely-baseless charges of liberal bias. More important, it stunts students’ development by decreasing the opportunities they have to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones and learn to navigate the precarious waters of fundamental disagreement. Beyond such high-minded concerns, a more pragmatic benefit of working with students on framing these controversial events is that doing so would provide them an excellent occasion to sharpen their rhetorical and marketing skills, preparing them to think like the professionals we hope they will become.

If colleges do anything to prepare future generations for effective citizenship, it will not be through the bubbles they erect around their campuses to keep out the waves of fear and hate flooding "the real world." As much as we shun the divisive rhetoric and illiberal executive orders threatening everything we stand for, no good can come from attempts to conceal these realities from our students, no matter how painful direct exposure might feel in the short term. If, finally, we want students to engage the wide world and insert themselves into it meaningfully, we have to let them.

Rafael Walker teaches critical writing at the University of Pennsylvania.