Free Speech Prevails at Clark University: Student Group Overcomes President’s Heavy Hand, Allowed to Bring Controversial Speaker to Campus

By April 22, 2009

The past few weeks have been dismal for free speech rights at Massachusetts colleges, most recently at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with the brandishing of the "heckler’s veto" to disrupt a speech by Don Feder and the prevention of distribution of the conservative student paper The Minuteman. These incidents have been compounded by the serious failures of the UMass administration, police, and student government to respect and uphold First Amendment rights. Fortunately, Clark University seems to have avoided a similar fate, though not without a few bumps of its own.

In February, Clark University Students for Palestinian Rights (CUSPR) arranged for a speaking engagement with Norman Finkelstein, to be held Thursday, April 23, with no apparent resistance from the Clark administration. On April 6, however, Clark President John Bassett called Tom MacMillan, CUSPR president, to a meeting, along with the CUSPR executive board and several senior administrators. At the meeting Bassett stated plainly that the planned event would not go forward.

Bassett’s given reason was that the date of Finkelstein’s speech coincided with the first day of Clark’s Graduate Students’ Conference on Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and that the coincidence of such a conference with an event featuring someone with Finkelstein’s controversial views on the Holocaust would not be a good mix for the Clark community. (Never mind that Finkelstein’s planned lecture was on a different topic altogether.) In a letter published April 9 in Clark’s student paper, The Scarlet, Bassett stated that

[w]hile I do not believe that the students who invited Mr. Finkelstein to campus intended it as an affront to those planning the conference, in the eyes of many in the Clark community and our invited guests, it seems to be just that. It is possible that our understanding of the Middle East conflicts would be enriched by conversations with Professor Finkelstein. It is my judgement, however, that having Professor Finkelstein speak on the same evening as our planned conference would only invite controversy and not dialogue or understanding.

Rather ominously, Bassett also called for campus-wide "dialogues" to discuss the suitability of certain speakers for Clark, allowing only that "after Fall Break in early October" he would "be happy to discuss with interested students the appropriateness of an invitation to Mr. Finkelstein."

Fortunately, Bassett seems to have changed tack rather quickly. After much unfriendly press directed at Clarkalong with a disapproving letter from the ACLU of Massachusettsand a CUSPR-initiated petition drive, the organization has been allowed to reschedule its event for the evening of Thursday, April 27, without the need for the "dialogues" Bassett had stressed just days before.

This does not wholly ameliorate the situation, of course. Bassett showed an unsettling willingness to overrule student groups and administrators in initially cancelling the event. And as the ACLU wrote in its letter, "[t]he existence of an opportunity to speak at another time or in another location does not remedy the wrong of censorship."

But it’s a start. MacMillan had it exactly right in saying, "People are perfectly within their rights to come or not come to our events and question sternly our speakers, but we are within our rights to have them." Indeed, Finkelstein’s many severe critics have every right to avoid the lectureor to show up and protest against him and his views. As we’ve seen so many times at FIRE, it is the students who ended up teaching the administration how to conduct real, honest dialogue. Congratulations to CUSPR for successfully sticking up for students’ rights.

Schools: Clark University