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Why Colleges Have a Right to Reject Hateful Speakers Like Ann Coulter

Disinviting right-wing provocateurs isn't a suppression of free speech. It's a value judgment in keeping with higher education's mission.

Jose Luis Magana/AP

As graduation season approaches, colleges across the country are locking down commencement speakers to address the class of 2017. Harvard got Mark Zuckerberg (a Harvard dropout). Hillary Clinton is speaking at Wellesley, Bernie Sanders at Brooklyn College. Joe Biden will speak to my seniors at Colby. But if this year is anything like last, other invitees will prove more controversial, sparking another round of debates over “no-platforming”: the practice of opposing campus speakers.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a libertarian group favored by the Koch and DeVos families, refers to graduation season as “disinvitation season,” because of an apparently growing number of cancelled commencement speakers. But as FIRE itself has documented, this debate is no longer seasonal, but year-round. Since last spring, we’ve seen controversies over scheduled campus speakers including Milo Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray, and most recently Ann Coulter, whose speech next week at the University of California at Berkeley was cancelled amid security concerns. (Coulter has rejected Berkeley’s offer to reschedule the event for May, saying she’ll show up next Thursday, as originally planned.)

As with similar campus controversies, the criticism of Berkeley was not confined to the political right. “Obviously Ann Coulter’s outrageous—to my mind, off the wall,” Sanders told The Huffington Post last week. “But you know, people have a right to give their two cents-worth, give a speech, without fear of violence and intimidation.” He said that it was “a sign of intellectual weakness” to “boo, or shut her down, or prevent her from coming,” adding, “What are you afraid of—her ideas? Ask her the hard questions. Confront her intellectually.”

Some argued that no-platforming doesn’t work, or may backfire. “Pushing ideas off campus or underground will not shut down controversial viewpoints,” Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s executive director, said. In a recent essay on attempts by students at Claremont McKenna College to block a talk by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald, a critic of the Black Lives Matter movement, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf worried that more powerful political adversaries might someday use marginalized students’ tactics against them:

If these students succeed in changing free-speech norms in any realm, so that expression is more routinely suppressed when dubbed injurious or hateful or libelous, the history of speech restrictions on and off campus—a history routinely ignored by student censors—suggests marginalized communities will be hardest hit by their pyrrhic victory.

Students should take these warnings seriously, because left-leaning students aren’t the only ones disinviting speakers. Barack Obama and Alice Walker are among many speakers the right has attempted to disinvite. But to call students “censors” fails to understand what no-platforming entails in the broader context of higher education and its core mission. Rejecting campus speakers is not an assault on free speech. Rather, like so many other decisions made every day by college students, teachers, and administrators, it’s a value judgment.

The debate over no-platforming, largely waged through the national media, is often divorced from the reality of how it plays out on campus. College faculty and administrators would rather not veto colleagues or student groups who want to invite a speaker, even a controversial one. This is a good thing, because the default should be to encourage speech. But to understand these disinvitation attempts, we need to understand the unglamorous process by which speakers get invited.

When departments or groups arrange for a speaker, invitations are usually authorized by small committees or localized administrative offices without a campus-wide discussion or debate. Student groups, and even academic and administrative departments, operate with differing degrees of autonomy. Given the number and ideological diversity of these groups, they don’t typically hold a forum about whether to invite someone; they petition the appropriate offices for approval, put together a budget, and plan the event. A handful of people make judgment calls to authorize speakers before invitations go out. Hosting groups then advertise the event, at which point the controversy—if there’s destined to be one—begins.

Understanding this sequence of events is crucial, because no-platforming is as much a function of process as of politics. Instead of community-wide discussion and debate over the merits of bringing a given speaker to campus, the debate happens after the invitation, giving the misleading impression that no-platforming is about shutting down speech. Indeed, when savvier campus groups deliberately choose controversial speakers, they’ve already won half the battle by getting the speaker approved. After that, every value judgment against the speaker, however thoughtful, reasonable, or prudent, becomes an attempt to silence the speaker and “shield students from scary ideas.” Even when disinvitation is a product of nonviolent counter-speech or serious safety concerns due to violent protests from both the left and the right, provocateurs like Coulter erroneously claim violation of their “constitutional rights.” This is how a conversation about value becomes a conversation about censorship and “safe spaces.”

Because of this dynamic, critics of no-platforming are correct from a tactical standpoint: students won’t win the rhetorical battle by disrupting campus events. Speakers with a hateful message become martyrs of the “tyrannical campus left” when protesters prevent them from speaking—particularly when things turn violent, as happened when Murray visited Middlebury College earlier this year. In a political climate that gratuitously portrays anyone young and educated as an entitled “snowflake,” the provocateur circuit—like Yiannopoulos’s “Dangerous Faggot Tour”—is a thriving business model. Right-wing speaker aggrandizement correlates directly with left-wing student resentment. And as Nossel and Friedersdorf point out, no-platforming will not defeat lousy or hateful ideas, especially when it takes the form of disrupting or violently protesting an event.

But no-platforming is better understood as the kind of value judgment that lies at heart of a liberal arts education—“liberal” referring not to politics, of course, but to the kinds of knowledge the ancient Greeks and Romans believed were necessary for the flourishing of a free person, necessary for full and effective participation in civic life. This has always meant deciding what people needed to know, but also what they don’t need to know—or at least which knowledge and skills deserved priority in one’s formal education.

Though the knowledge and skills we deem essential have changed over the years, the practice of curating and prioritizing them is still crucial to the mission of a classically liberal education. No-platforming may look like censorship from certain angles, but from others it’s a consequence of a challenging, never-ending process occurring at virtually all levels of the university: deciding what educational material to present to our students and what to leave out. In this sense, de-platforming isn’t censorship; it’s a product of free expression and the foundational aims of a classically liberal education.

One of professors’ core responsibilities, in every discipline, is to develop a syllabus. With roughly 14 weeks per semester, composed of two 75-minute meetings per course per week, every syllabus I put in front of my students is a product of immediate practical limitations.

For my “Age of Revolution” course I have 14 weeks to cover the English Civil Wars, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution, which means it’s incumbent upon me—and every other professor—to think very carefully about what students need to know, and thus what to prioritize and what to leave out. In making that decision, I consult other scholars in the field and review other syllabi. I consider my research strengths, as well as the gaps or needs in the broader curriculum. If I end up leaving off James Madison in favor of Edmund Burke, I’m hardly “censoring” Madison. And if I deem it important to bring underrepresented voices into my course—like poet and former slave Phillis Wheatley—I’m judging Wheatley more appropriate for that platform. Such decisions aren’t about “shutting down” points of view; they’re about finding the most valuable ways to use our limited time and resources.

To treat the open forum of the classroom or the campus like just another town square—and thus to explain value judgment and knowledge prioritization on campus in terms of censorship or “shutting down” speech—is misguided. No one really thinks Coulter’s ideas are “shut down” if she doesn’t get a chance to talk to Berkeley students. Indeed, as I’ve argued, the marketplace of ideas is more likely to reward controversy than substance. It’s reasonable for us to disagree over the value of bringing someone like Coulter to campus; but it’s unreasonable to insist that if people make successful arguments for why Coulter shouldn’t have a campus platform, that’s tantamount to censorship. Obviously, students can read, watch, and hear professional provocateurs like Coulter without an institution of higher education hosting her speech. An education opens minds and expands horizons by introducing students to people and ideas they otherwise won’t find trending on Twitter over the latest monetized controversy.

We should think about campus speakers less in terms of the so-called marketplace and more in the terms that guide other kinds of educational programming on campus. Inviting quality speakers to share expertise and experience is an important part of the educational mission. Just as scholars routinely disagree about which material belongs on the syllabus, administrators, faculty, and students can understandably and productively disagree over what makes a quality speaker. The process of reconciling that disagreement is bound to involve vocal opposition to some invited speakers, arguments made with varying degrees of merit and coherence. And the reality is that sometimes—in a tiny fraction of cases, it should be noted—a community will come to a decision to pass over a speaker even after one segment of that community has made an invitation.

For this process to work productively, changes need to happen on both sides of the no-platforming issue. Students and protesters need to eschew violence and disruption to focus instead on the many viable arguments for why low-value speakers like Coulter don’t deserve a campus platform. Free-speech activists, meanwhile, should rein in overly broad definitions of censorship, and understand that free speech means the right to speak, not the right to a college platform.