More Unsavory Disinvitations: This Time, Nonie Darwish at Princeton and Columbia

By December 10, 2009

More points were scored recently for the angry "heckler’s veto" when protesters (including at least one Princeton administrator) successfully pressured Nonie Darwish’s student hosts to cancel her speaking events at Princeton and Columbia universities. Darwish is Founder and Director of Former Muslims United.

Darwish’s November 18, 2009, speech at Princeton was canceled the evening before she was scheduled to speak, according to The Daily Princetonian, because of her previously expressed views. Both student groups that were sponsoring the event, Tigers for Israel and the American Whig-Cliosophic Society (Whig-Clio), withdrew.

Each group gave a different, strange reason for withdrawing. For Tigers for Israel, it was the prospect of seeming to be "endorsing" all of Darwish’s views. Yet, since when did a group’s own views become automatically conflated with all of an invited speaker’s previously expressed views? It is quite wrong to think, for instance, that those who invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Columbia University "endorsed" all (or perhaps any) of his controversial views.

Tigers for Israel reportedly capitulated under pressure from Rabbi Julie Roth, director of the Center for Jewish Life, with which Tigers for Israel is affiliated. Roth got involved because Coordinator of Muslim Life Sohaib Sultan called him and said that Darwish’s views unacceptably go "beyond academic discourse."

As for Whig-Clio, its president, Ben Weisman, told the paper that the disinvitation was Tigers for Israel’s fault:

Our decision to co-host the event was based on our belief that by extending an offer to speak to Ms. Darwish, members of TFI deemed her views a legitimate element of the mainstream discourse and in part agreed with her incendiary opinions … By rescinding their offer, TFI indicated their understanding that Darwish’s views have no place in the campus community, essentially rendering irrelevant our attempt at opening them up for debate.

Apparently, Whig-Clio’s argument here is that if your co-sponsor decides that somebody’s views "have no place in the campus community," you’ll go along and simply agree. Sorry to say it, but to cite F. Scott Fitzgerald out of context, I think these student groups are bigger sissies than Yale and Harvard.

Once Whig-Clio pulled out of the event, it would no longer let its area be used for the speech. A student publication, The Princeton Tory, agreed to be a sponsor, but it was too late:

[S]ince Public Safety had been told the event was cancelled, there would have been no security, and the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students failed to respond to the new co-sponsorship …

Without security, a room, or time to get the event back on track, the event could not go on.

It took some non-Princeton non-sissies to provide a voice of reason. In a letter to the editor of the Princetonian, Aviva Slomich, National Student Coordinator of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, wrote:

Princeton University, with its tradition of "free inquiry" and "free expression" (from University handbook "Rights, Rules, Responsibilities" 2008) is the last place we would have expected a guest speaker to be muzzled because of what she might say. The University’s own handbook cites the benefit of exposing students to diverse viewpoints and allowing them to learn from a broad range of human experiences. Students are encouraged to question, critique, challenge and grow in the pursuit of truth.

[...]

Ms. Darwish has spoken freely at scores, if not hundreds, of university campuses … While there have been students at some meetings who challenged her, they did not deny her the right to present her point of view. But, in one case, at Brown University when support for her appearance was withdrawn, the university itself then invited her back, lest there be any doubt where the institution stood with regard to defending free speech. Brown should be a model for Princeton and Nonie Darwish should be invited by the University to affirm that principle.

As for Columbia, one blog quotes a Columbia student saying:

My name is Daniel Hertz, and I am a senior at Columbia University. [...]

I am the CAMERA fellow for Columbia and the President of Campus Media Watch. We are the group that tried to bring Nonie Darwish to speak yesterday. It was very unfortunate that we had our event canceled due to "security risks," and I am still dealing with ways to respond to what happened. Regardless of them shutting down the event, last night I took about 20 students and professors to a restaurant and reserved a private area. Nonie was able to give her speech and we all had amazing intimate conversations with her over dinner.

It is a sad day when students have to go off campus to hear from an engaging speaker. It is even sadder when yet another Ivy League school has failed to live up to the ideal of being a "marketplace of ideas."

I spoke with Hertz yesterday. As he tells it, his student organization, Campus Media Watch, was still going through the approval process and did not yet have authorization to reserve rooms. Thus, Darwish’s speech officially was sponsored by a faculty group, the Columbia Chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME). SPME faculty members reserved a room holding about 50 people. Once Hertz realized that there could be a security issue, he alerted campus security (about a week before the speech was to take place). On the Friday before the event, he was told that all he needed to do was reserve a larger room and all would be well. But by Monday morning, he was told that Columbia had cancelled the event because the SPME professors did not have authority to reserve rooms on campus. Apparently, they had been doing so in the past, but Columbia suddenly had decided to crack down. (I wonder why?) Not only that-Hertz was told that Columbia, miraculously, had already scheduled someone else for the original room, so he couldn’t have the event in that room even if he wanted to. (I encourage SPME faculty or Columbia administrators to contact me if they have a different version of events.) Hertz says that Campus Media Watch is now an official student organization and intends to bring Darwish to campus next semester. FIRE will be watching carefully to ensure that this suspicious set of circumstances does not somehow repeat itself.

Schools: Columbia University Princeton University Cases: Nationwide: Colleges Across the Country Disinvite Commencement Speakers