posted at 5:01 pm on April 24, 2017 by John Sexton
It has been a banner day for progressives who want to redefine our notions of free speech. Earlier today Allahpundit wrote about Howard Dean’s dubious argument that free speech doesn’t protect “hate speech.” Then Jazz Shaw wrote about a piece published by the New York Times which argues free speech should be restricted for the public good. For the third part of this hat trick, I direct your attention to the New Republic where Assistant Professor of English Aaron Hanlon has a piece titled, “Why Colleges Have a Right to Reject Hateful Speakers Like Ann Coulter.”
Note from the title that this is ostensibly about whether colleges may disinvite “hateful” speakers. Hanlon never really devotes much time to the ugly reality of these disinvitation battles, or as he calls it “no-platforming.” In fact, he claims what is happening is really just part of the messy process of selecting speakers:
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.
This seems to me to be exactly how free speech ought to operate. If some recognized group on campus wants to invite that speaker and can raise funds to cover the costs associated with that speaker, that ought to be enough to extend an invitation. Why should the campus need to be given a vote, or a veto, over a particular speaker?
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.
Again, a discussion is one thing, but contrary to what Hanlon claims here, recent efforts by student groups have explicitly been about shutting down speech they oppose. For instance, a speech by Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna College was partly canceled by a mass of progressive students seen on video chanting “Shut it down!” Do the progressives want to shut down all speech? No, of course not. Only the speech they disagree with.
Hanlon then attempts to argue that these efforts to silence speech are really about prioritization:
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.
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…
This is a perfectly reasonable argument as it applies to creating a course syllabus. The professor is expected to highlight what he or she believes is most important threads of complex issues in the limited time allowed. But this has nothing to do with inviting (or disinviting) speakers on campus for many reasons.
Campus time is not limited in the same way as class time, except of course the limit of 24-hours a day. But not all of those hours are programmed for us, even in college. Outside of class time, there is no subject matter expert making decisions about what is and is not worthy of every students’ time. If they want to listen to the latest Kanye West album or go to see an action movie or listen to a controversial campus speaker who was invited by a conservative group, that’s up to them, not to anyone else. At least that’s how it should be. Increasingly, progressives are demanding a say in all of these areas—music, movies, campus speech. If they disagree with the message, they want it silenced.
The better way to apply this syllabus metaphor would be to see campus groups who invite speakers as freelance course creators offering non-credit classes for interested students. So, for instance, if the campus conservative group believes inviting Heather Mac Donald is important then it ought to be free to make her available as a speaker. Arguing there isn’t time for her in campus life is absurd. Indeed, if this were really about scarce time, progressive students would be better served ignoring the speech rather than using up hundreds of hours trying to shut it down.
What this is really about is one group of students trying to making value judgments for everyone else. To return to the syllabus metaphor, progressives want to create a life syllabus for everyone on campus. They will decide what you should and shouldn’t hear based on their values and priorities. Anyone who tries to deviate from that syllabus gets shouted down (for the good of the campus, of course). That’s a worrisome trend and it’s even more worrisome that professors who ought to know better are rushing to support this nonsense.