Increasingly on college and university campuses nationwide, students are objecting to invitations to visiting speakers with whom they disagree and demanding that the speakers be disinvited. This especially occurs in the spring, with colleges’ commencement speakers often coming under heavy criticism, leading FIRE to dub the phenomenon “disinvitation season.”
On April 15, the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale University hosted its First Annual Disinvitation Dinner in order to recognize those who have been the target of disinvitation attempts. Columnist George Will—who has been the subject of both successful and unsuccessful demands for disinvitations—gave the keynote speech at the event, rejecting the idea that people are too fragile to handle freedom of expression and citing the preposterous results of overly broad restrictions on speech.
Hailing FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff as “a genuine hero of our times,” Will credits his book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate as the source of many of the examples of censorship cited throughout his speech. Will draws on Greg’s work to criticize members of campus communities demanding “an embrace of the infantilization”—or, as Greg called it in his most recent book, “freedom from speech”:
This is all a part of the luxuriating we now do in fragility, in threat, in menace, in unsafety. And it gives rise to the idea that we now enjoy, more important than freedom of speech, trumping the freedom of speech, the right to freedom from speech. It is as Mr. Lukianoff says, sensitivity-based censorship. It is the right to an emotionally, intellectually comfortable living. Just as in our physical lives we have, through the revolutions of pharmacology, conquered pain and pain management, we have now decided that as an analogue, we should work to similarly conquer emotional pain. Hence, a president of Barnard College said, quote, no Barnard student should be uncomfortable in any class. This, of course, is why we have trigger warnings.
Will’s speech is worth watching or reading in full, but of course, there’s only so many egregious First Amendment violations one can fit into a single speech. Fortunately, FIRE has more on some of the cases Will cited for those who want to know all the troubling details.
Will starts with a FIRE classic: the case of Keith John Sampson, a student-employee at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who was found guilty of racial harassment in 2008 just for reading a book about the Ku Klux Klan. The case isn’t unique—Will also cites Brandeis University’s determination that a professor was guilty of racial harassment for saying “wetbacks” in the context of criticizing use of the word in his Latin American Politics course. Then there’s Texas Tech University’s establishment of a 20-foot-wide free speech gazebo, which was ultimately struck down in a 2004 court case coordinated by FIRE.
Sadly, as recent cases demonstrate and as Greg notes in Unlearning Liberty, attempts to silence students don’t come just from college administrators—they come from other students and professors, too. Will cited several examples of this disappointing phenomenon in his speech.
Last November, students at Brown University objected to a debate featuring Wendy McElroy because of her skepticism about the extent of “rape culture,” and encouraged their peers to attend a “safer” event instead. Earlier in the year, students at Wellesley College demanded the school remove a statue of a near-nude sleepwalking man because it was purportedly “triggering.” In response to demands for so-called “trigger warnings,” Oberlin College told its faculty to avoid or make optional reading materials that students could find triggering—a risk created by a huge portion of, if not most, classic works taught in colleges today. And no discussion of the misguided idea that people have a right not to be exposed to upsetting ideas would be complete without mention of the University of California, Santa Barbara professor who was caught on video stealing an on-campus pro-life protester’s sign and fighting back physically when the protester tried to get it back.
Things aren’t all bad, though. Will makes reference to Modesto Junior College student Robert Van Tuinen, who was told he couldn’t hand out copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day in 2013. FIRE helped Van Tuinen sue, and MJC ultimately agreed to revise its speech codes and pay Van Tuinen $50,000. Through FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, we’ve secured similar results at three other colleges, with hopefully more to come.
Another topic of Will’s speech demonstrates, however, that not all threats to campus free speech are evident at first glance. He notes the current Supreme Court case of Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, in which the Court is examining whether the government speech doctrine applies to custom designed license plates. As we explained here on The Torch, the ruling could have serious implications for student speech that includes the name of their school, which is why FIRE filed an amicus curiae brief with the Court explaining the stakes.
Be sure to check out Will’s speech on YouTube for more on the history of freedom of expression, as well as Will’s predictions for the future.