The commencement seasons of recent years and attendant controversies over invited speakers have drawn significant attention to a phenomenon FIRE calls “disinvitation”—attempts by students, faculty, or others to prevent those they disagree with from speaking on campus. Unfortunately, this year proved to be no exception, as several high-profile commencement speakers faced opposition to their invitations to address graduates. With interest in disinvitations once again on the rise, FIRE has now augmented its resources in order to allow the general public to more easily examine and analyze the data behind the phenomenon.
As we pointed out in April, students and faculty have protested commencement invitations to a host of incontrovertibly accomplished speakers, including Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Jeff Sessions, and former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives John Boehner. But, as FIRE often points out, disinvitation is not just reserved for commencement speakers: It’s a reality on colleges campuses year-round. In fact, two-thirds of the disinvitation attempts thus far in 2016 have involved non-commencement speakers and performers. Fortunately, many have spoken out against this intellectually harmful trend, including President Obama, who has derided disinvitation in two commencement addresses of his own this year.
And as in past years, journalists and academics have picked apart these controversies in an attempt to discern what drives them, and how colleges and universities are reacting. Most recently, Heat Street’s Jillian Melchior analyzed the internal communications and struggle at Virginia Tech over an invitation to Jason Riley to speak as part of the BB&T Distinguished Lecture Series. As reflected in the emails that Heat Street acquired pursuant to a public records request, Virginia Tech worried that the invitation would draw student protests because Riley, who is himself black, wrote a controversial book on race titled Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed. The telling emails all but confirm what FIRE has long warned of: that the growing trend of disinvitation attempts will make students and administrators increasingly reluctant to invite potentially controversial speakers in the first place, ultimately harming intellectual exploration and critical thinking on campus.
With the renewed interest in exploring the disinvitation phenomenon and its impact, FIRE would like to remind everyone of the resources they can use to conduct in-depth research on the topic. In 2014 FIRE issued a Disinvitation Report, which analyzed many of the temporal and ideological trends of disinvitation. Since publishing the report, FIRE has received many requests for information about the disinvitation incidents we catalogued. In response, we decided to build a tool that would allow anyone interested to utilize the data we have collected to do research and draw their own conclusions. Along with this Disinvitation Database, we have now published a brief user’s guide that explains our terminology, methodology, and how to use the database most effectively.
We hope that putting this information at everyone’s fingertips will assist in the continuing analysis, and hopeful elimination, of the disinvitation phenomenon.