As we reported here on The Torch, “disinvitation season” got off to an early start this year back in March when faculty and students at Rutgers University urged the institution to rescind its selection of Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker this year. The university reaffirmed its choice of Rice as speaker, but late last week, Rice withdrew.
In a statement on her Facebook page, Rice wrote: “Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time.” While reaffirming her commitment to free speech, she explained that she didn’t want to disrupt “the purpose of the commencement ceremony.”
Although the decision was ultimately hers, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff explained yesterday on Fox & Friends that Rice’s predicament is part of a pattern FIRE has been observing for years. Whether through an official disinvitation or public pressure to withdraw, the whole campus receives a clear message: The stage isn’t open to those with dissenting or unpopular views.
NBC News reporter Bill Briggs also included the story in a review of some of the highlights—or lowlights—of the season. Along with Rice’s withdrawal, Briggs writes about Brandeis University’s recent disinvitation of women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ironically, Hirsi Ali had planned to express her gratitude for the opportunity to speak in the university setting, “where all ideas are welcome and where civil debate is encouraged.”
Boston-area attorney Kenneth N. Margolin drew a connection between the Hirsi Ali incident and college speech codes in an article for the Newton TAB last week:
Academia has increasingly become a place where controversial people and ideas are silenced by those believing that college should be a place of quiet inoffensiveness. As a result, bold, confrontational, or intemperate speech is often labeled offensive, racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted, with such accusations reflexively believed. In this hypersensitive environment, where censorship is not thought to be destructive, college administrators often join the howling mob, and impose censorship. Under many college codes of conduct, a student stating publicly on campus words identical to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s most controversial comments might find herself accused of religiously-based harassment. Many students have found themselves charged, sanctioned, suspended, and even expelled for merely using strong speech to state their opinions about sensitive matters involving race, sex, religion, national origin, or sexual identity.
FIRE’s Robert Shibley lamented the effect this phenomenon is having on students:
“Colleges and universities are teaching students to think like censors,” said Robert L. Shibley, senior vice president of FIRE. He asserts the practice is fueled by “overbroad harassment policies, free speech zones that render most of campus a censorship zone, and a focus on civility and comfort at the expense of lively debate.
“Yet colleges are the very institutions that are supposed to be teaching students to think critically and consider all sides of an argument,” Shibley said.