Who Gets a Platform on the College Campus?

Who Gets a Platform on the College Campus? September 17, 2014

When I was an undergraduate, the Cambridge Union invited Jean-Marie Le Pen – then Leader of the National Front Party of France – to debate immigration. Le Pen is a highly polarizing figure: a darling of the French right wing, and a demon to the left. Seen (rightly, I think) as a race-baiting, foreigner-hating, anti-semitic, pseudo-fascist bigot by some, he was hailed as a champion of traditional French values by others.

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Crowds Greet Jean-Marie Le Pen at the Cambridge Union

Predictably, his invitation caused a clash on campus. Many of my friends – I hung out and worked with some passionate leftists at the time – sought to stop the debate. They supported a “no platform” policy, arguing that while Monsieur Le Pen had every right to speak his mind, he needn’t be offered the megaphone that an invitation to speak at Cambridge – an honor not everybody receives – would provide. While they supported the free exchange of ideas, they did not think that the University should welcome outright racists, and they judged Le Pen to be one.

I took a different view. Believing a university to be an absolute haven for the expression of any idea whatsoever, no matter how offensive, derogatory, or dangerous, I supported the right of the Union to invite Le Pen, and attended the debate myself. I remember pushing through large crowds of demonstrators in an attempt to enter the building, jostled on all sides by the rapidly growing protest. Once inside (apparently I got lucky, as many – including Peter Hitchens – were turned away as protesters affected a blockade), I recall protesters climbing the walls and rattling the windows, throwing projectiles and even, at one point, pulling the fire alarm. As the debate was underway some protesters managed to flatten the tires and break the windscreen of Le Pen’s car, and afterward a few hit him with thrown eggs. It was, I think, the most violent protest I’ve ever experienced – and I’m not sure it presented the protesters and their cause in the best possible light.

Le Pen’s speech was forgettable: a standard party political stump speech which hardly engaged the debate. But he got what he wanted: the opportunity to say he had spoken at the Cambridge Union and that an intolerant left-wing mob had tried to silence him. Demagogues love it when they can claim people want to silence them.

A few years later – this time in Cambridge, MA rather than Cambridge, UK – and I was on the other side of the picket line, protesting members of the Seven Mountains Christian fundamentalist movement who have been invited to campus by a student organization at the Harvard Extension School. The Seven Mountains movement is extremely anti-LGBTQ, and has been involved in the promotion of homophobia overseas. As a recently-out-and-proud gay man I was putting my speaking skills to work to ensure Harvard knew that we would not be silent as grotesque bigots were invited to campus events. I felt the presence of these figures makes me less safe in my place of study, and that they offer little to further the intellectual goals of a university.

Speaking Out Against Seven Mountains
Speaking Out Against Seven Mountains

Now, as controversy rages over Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s invitation to speak at Yale, I am struck the potential contradiction in my actions. Why attend a debate starring Le Pen but protest an event featuring Seven Mountains representatives? Self-interest is one answer: as a white Englishman I am not and will never be the sort of immigrant to whom Le Pen so strongly objects, and so he poses no direct threat to me; as a gay man Seven Mountains affronts my dignity and seeks to restrict my rights. In the first case the questions are abstract and intellectual, in the second they are vital and personal. Needless to say this is not a legitimate basis on which to make ethical decisions, and I’d be concerned were this the only factor. But this is not the whole picture: my decisions also represent a genuine ambivalence I feel over the question of who should be given a platform to speak at a University, and how the faculty and student body should respond to speakers they find objectionable.

Before exploring this issue in depth, it is necessary to gain clarity regarding the issues which are at play. As I understand it, this is not an issue of “free speech”, understood as the legal right of individuals to speak their mind without censorship from the government. When a speaker is uninvited or decides to withdraw from a campus event due to protests, their legal freedom of speech is still intact: they have simply been denied the opportunity to speak at this particular place and time, on a platform they have no legal right to expect or demand. The opportunity to speak at a university is a privilege, not a right, and it can be granted more or less at the whim of the university. Most people in the USA go their whole lives without ever speaking at a university, and yet their right to free speech is intact. It is not a component of the right to free speech that you never be uninvited from a speaking engagement, and to be uninvited is not to be censored.

Furthermore, it must be recognized that a university is more than a place of study and contemplation: for many of the students, particularly undergraduates, a college campus is their home. Many do not have the luxury of removing themselves to a different place if they feel the campus is unsafe or unwelcoming. This is particularly true of undergraduates who, as well as being the students most likely to live on campus, also tend to be less economically independent and simply younger than other students. The university therefore has a special duty of care toward these students: anyone who has worked with undergraduates will know that university years can be a time of extraordinary stress and challenge, and that the difference between a wonderful and a horrific experience can come down to matters such as the level of welcome students feel on campus. Minority students – racial, sexual, and religious minorities, for example – are at particular risk for all sorts of reasons, so special efforts should be made to ensure a campus feels safe and welcoming to them. Inviting speakers who deny the dignity of some students by promoting racial stereotypes, opposing their equal rights, making disparaging generalizations etc. can make some students feel unsafe and unwelcome on campus, and can definitely negatively affect their college experience. This is not a matter of students “taking offense”, but a deeper question as to whether their dignity and safety is at stake. Distinguishing those points is crucial in this discussion.

At the same time, universities exist for a special set of purposes. While a university campus is certainly a student’s home while they are living there, it is not just their home: it exists to generate knowledge and to pass knowledge onto the next generation, while teaching that generation the tools with which to generate new knowledge themselves (obviously this is a very rough sketch of the purpose of a university). If universities did not see something like this as their primary mission, they would cease to be universities: the knowledge-generation and dissemination aspect of a university is not just a nice thing for a university to think about, but the reason why they exist at all, and one reason why students choose to go. While all students probably want to have a great time at university, if they just had a great time, and didn’t learn anything, I think most would feel cheated. The university has a duty of care for students’ minds as well as for their sense of psychological security.

In order to be an effective place of learning and knowledge-generation, universities must, by necessity, cultivate a particular intellectual atmosphere. Key among the qualities of this “intellectual atmosphere” is a willingness to foster debate, challenge ideas, and entertain the unthinkable. This last one is critical: universities simply must be places where ideas considered by some to be abhorrent are given an airing and considered seriously. Why? Two main reasons: first, because only through willingness to discuss abhorrent ideas can we generate the best possible responses to them. If we are simply not allowed to discuss, say, the question of whether homosexuality is a mental illness, then we cannot generate any counter-arguments (I choose this because, as a gay man, my personal experiences make this case difficult for me to make, and because I have some sense of how it would feel to entertain this discussion on a campus). Second, because we might be wrong, and the only way to find out if we are wrong is to open up the discussion.

On this second point: it may seem outrageous to say today that we might be mistaken and discover that it is best to view homosexuality as a mental illness. It may seem like a settled question, and that any reasonably moral person would balk at the idea. But we must remember that not everyone coming to the campus shares our views (I have personally taught students from parts of the world where it is commonly held that homosexuality is an illness), and that to some students this may be a novel discussion which helps them come to a different conclusion, thus advancing the cause of justice. And we must also remember that at one time the idea that homosexuality was not a mental illness provoked feelings of disgust and outrage in academics and the population alike. Today’s common wisdom was yesterday’s heresy, and today’s heresy may be the common wisdom of tomorrow. I cannot stress this point enough: if we exclude any viewpoint at all from the college campus, we are thereby asserting the infallibility of our own ideas. We are saying “Our analysis could not possibly be wrong”, for if we entertain any doubt at all (and there always should be doubt), we would allow the case to be heard.

So what does this mean for Le Pen and Seven Mountains, and for speakers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who are praised by some and condemned by others? Let them speak, or not? Protest, or stay silent? There is a genuine tension between two values here: on the one hand you have the safety and sense of welcome of students, some of which who might be especially vulnerable. On the other hand you have the core mission of the university, and its commitment to the open exchange of ideas as a component of that mission. There is no simple way to square this circle, and the resolution may come down to an unsatisfactory case-by-case analysis of the potential harm and potential benefits of every such speaker. But a few broad principles can be drawn, I think.

Firstly, students have every right to protest any speaker they wish. If the students stop short of calling for the speaker to be uninvited, and do not physically prevent people from attending the lecture, then their protest can be as much a part of the intellectual discourse of the university as the planned speech itself. I was very clear, when speaking to reporters about the protest of Seven Mountains, that I was not arguing that they shouldn’t be allowed on campus – rather, I felt they shouldn’t be on campus unopposed, and I was there to oppose them. Indeed, organizing and participating in a protest or the sort the Yale Muslim Student Association composed in response to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s planned speech can be a highly educational experience, and is precisely the sort of engagement educators should promote in their students. We do not need to agree with the students protesting these events to recognize their protest as a legitimate part of the intellectual life of the university, just as we don’t have to agree with any invited speaker to recognize the value of their appearance on campus. In this case, the Yale Muslim Student Association (despite some quibbles I’d have with the contents of their letter of protest, which I think was wrong on a couple of points) acted in a way consistent with the aims of a university, by strongly protesting a speaker they took issue with without calling for them to be uninvited. That the Buckley Program, which invited Ali, didn’t “back down” in the face of criticism is less of interest to me than the fact that it doesn’t seem to have engaged in a meaningful way with the criticism itself.  This was an opportunity to open dialogue which was missed.

Secondly, there must be spaces for outrageous ideas to be expressed on college campuses, if they genuinely advance intellectual discourse. I see no reason why any old bigot should be invited to speak on a campus merely for the purpose of outraging people, but nor can I countenance the idea that a properly-qualified individual with outrageous views should be prevented from speaking. What constitutes “properly-qualified” is a difficult question to answer, but I do not think one has to be a college professor or even have a degree of any sort to advance intellectual discourse. In my view, as someone with deep personal and professional experience with some aspects of a facet of Islamic culture, as well as an international platform, Ali is certainly qualified to speak and would likely provoke genuine intellectual engagement in students who attended the talk. I see no reason therefore to prevent her from speaking on a college campus. Jean-Marie Le Pen, I fear, also met the criteria, as an internationally known politician with decades of political experience.

Third, and finally, the university is responsible, regardless of who it invites to speak on campus, of ensuring that all students feel welcome and valued. The duty of care a university has for its students does not disappear, even when it seems in tension with the primary goals of the institution. This means universities should seek to anticipate when an invited speaker might cause segments of the student body to feel harassed or unwelcome, and should reach out ahead of time to representatives of those groups to engage in dialogue and make arrangements to lessen the impact of such invitations. While this may not always include inviting a speaker to counter the views of the speaker under consideration (this is a burden the university should not take on for a number of reasons, but this post is already too long), it does include ensuring that students are made to feel that their viewpoint is recognized and considered, and that plans are in place to repair any damage to the sense of “home” which might ensure from the invitation of a problematic speaker. They might, for example, organize a safe-space discussion period, have a follow-up event, consistently seek feedback about such events etc.

This is not, perhaps, the satisfying declaration for one side or another people might hope for in a case such as this. My position is likely to seem insufficiently full-throated in its support of free inquiry to some, while to others it will seem like I am throwing minorities under the bus of intellectual debate. But this is the nature of ethics: we are constantly asked to weigh up competing values in ways which best do justice to our commitments. In this case, the best we can do is seek a balance: this may be unsexy, but it is often wise.


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