FIRE saw a record number of attempts by students, faculty, and others to prevent those with whom they disagreed from speaking on campus in 2016. FIRE has tracked this worrying phenomenon—what we call “disinvitations”—in our comprehensive Disinvitation Database cataloguing such incidents since 2000.
FIRE logged 42 separate incidents this year in which speakers faced opposition to their presence on campus, our highest tally ever. This year’s number precisely doubles the 21 disinvitations we saw in 2015 and marks a nearly 24 percent jump over 2013, the year that held the previous disinvitation record at 34. By way of comparison to other recent years, FIRE tallied 28 incidents from 2014, 20 from 2012, and 22 from 2011.
“The resurgence of disinvitation attempts following a year of decline in their prevalence is a disturbing development,” said Ari Cohn, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “The increasing unwillingness to allow anyone on campus to hear ideas with which one disagrees poses a grave risk to students’ intellectual development. Rather than seeking to banish controversial or offensive ideas from campus, students would be far better off if they confronted, grappled with, and rigorously debated the views that they find disagreeable.”
The database specifies whether the incident involved a completed disinvitation or disinvitation attempt, along with the school, speaker, event type, and whether the call for censorship came from the political left or right of the speaker.
While it’s hard to attribute the uptick to any one cause, we would be remiss not to note that 11 of the 42 disinvitations were for a single speaker: Breitbart editor and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. His controversial “Dangerous Faggot Tour” traveled to colleges across the country this year and seemed to prompt a new report of attempted censorship in some form or another each week—sometimes daily. While some protests of his tour were peaceful, others were not and thus warranted inclusion in our database.
In the run up to commencement this spring—what FIRE annually dubs “Disinvitation Season”—we monitored attempts to stop undeniably accomplished commencement speakers, including then-Speaker of the House John Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden at the University of Notre Dame, Senator Jeff Sessions at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at Scripps College.
Commencement speaker disinvitations used to account for a majority of annual disinvitations, and while they are still high, so increasingly are other types of disinvitations. Among the highest profile incidents in 2016 was journalist and Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Jason Riley’s disinvitation from Virginia Tech this spring. (Heat Street’s subsequent inquiry into the school’s internal email discussion of how to manage the controversy was telling.) And the award for most ironic (and condescendingly paternalistic) disinvitation goes to Williams College, whose president unilaterally disinvited writer John Derbyshire in February over fears his talk would upset black students. The twist? Derbyshire had been invited by Zach Wood, the black president of Williams’ “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series, which seeks to broaden students’ intellectual horizons by bringing divisive opinions to campus for discussion and debate. Wood sat down with FIRE earlier this year to talk about the experience:
Echoing FIRE’s long-held concerns, Ari pointed out this summer 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.” Indeed, the decline in the number of disinvitation attempts in previous years may be in part attributable to this effect.
FIRE, a First Amendment charity, effectively and decisively defends the fundamental rights of tens of thousands of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses while simultaneously reaching millions on and off campus through education, outreach, and college reform efforts.