Is FIRE’s Disinvitation Database ‘shallow’? Hardly. | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

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Is FIRE’s Disinvitation Database ‘shallow’? Hardly.

Disinvitations are back in the news, following the violent protests surrounding Charles Murray’s appearance at Middlebury College two weeks ago. Many who explore or write on the topic of disinvitation draw on the material found in FIRE’s Disinvitation Database, which is precisely the reason that we publish all of our data—to give people the opportunity to dig into the underlying information and draw their own conclusions.

Sometimes, those who explore our database have criticisms of our definitions, methodology, or conclusions. FIRE welcomes those views, and as we have always made clear, our data is necessarily imperfect and incomplete.

But yesterday, Michael Hiltzik took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times to explain his criticisms of our work, in particular the “shallowness of the database and the exaggerations in [FIRE’s] analysis,” and I wanted to take the time to respond to his claims.

A broad, conceptual problem with Hiltzik’s criticisms is found in his assessment that the number of disinvitation incidents is a small portion of all of the speeches and discussions held on campuses across the country, given that there are over 4,000 colleges and universities across the country. There are two problems with this assessment. The first is factual: While there may be 4,000 colleges and universities, the universe of schools to which controversial, big-name speakers are invited is likely significantly smaller.

The second problem is that, for FIRE’s broader point about disinvitations, the precise proportion of disinvitation attempts respective to the overall number of all possible campus speaking engagements is not determinative. And that ties in with what Hiltzik describes as the “chief problem” with our Disinvitation Database: “It treats every protest against a speaker as a blow against free speech, whether it resulted in a genuine disinvitation or not, whether the event was a commencement address or campus talk or panel discussion, and whether the protest came from on campus or off.”

This criticism belies a misunderstanding of the purpose of not only the database but also our disinvitation work more generally. FIRE is concerned with disinvitations not only because of the severity of each individual incident’s impact on free speech, but also because it exemplifies a trend: students demanding freedom from speech, and demanding that any idea or expression they personally find noxious or disagreeable be kept off campus so that nobody can hear it. So, yes, there certainly may be varying effects on free speech in each instance, depending on the circumstances. But the fact is that when students or faculty members call for disinvitations, or when administrators accede to disinvitation demands, it teaches students the wrong lesson: that keeping anyone on campus from hearing views with which some people disagree, rather than the more difficult task of engaging in critical thinking and refuting those views, is an acceptable and successful tactic.

That’s also why we include concert appearances in our database, though we do not, as Hiltzik suggests, make any judgment on their equivalence to other types of disinvitations; that is for each individual to decide. But again, even disinvitations from concert appearances are useful in examining the ideological purity tests students appear to be conducting before someone is allowed to engage in expression on campus.

This leads me to Hiltzik’s criticism of FIRE’s inclusion of commencement speakers in the database. Hiltzik makes the argument that commencement speakers are not so much about “fostering the free exchange of ideas on campus,” but rather are opportunities for household names to address graduates in exchange for an honorary degree and some cash. Notably, Hiltzik claims that commencement invitations are implicitly or explicitly “endorsements of the speaker’s work and viewpoint by the university.”

But this is not the case. Commencement speakers are generally invited because they have a message to students that would be valuable as they move forward with their lives, often drawing upon their own histories and experiences. Very rarely do commencement speakers address the issues for which they are being protested. A university’s invitation to a commencement speaker cannot be seen as an endorsement of all of a speaker’s views. That is plainly untenable. For one, if such invitations did constitute endorsements of the speakers’ views, likely every college would be guilty of endorsing the mutually contradictory views of any number of its present and past speakers on a wide variety of issues.

What’s more, there is virtually no interesting commencement speaker that hasn’t ever said or done anything controversial or unpopular. And if a requirement, whether from students or administrators, is that a speaker never have done or said anything that the university would not want to endorse, students are going to find themselves being addressed by only the most anodyne, bland speakers.

Hiltzik takes particular issue with two specific commencement speaker disinvitation attempts. The first is the protests of Notre Dame’s decision to honor Joe Biden and John Boehner at last year’s graduation. Hiltzik says students merely wrote to say they were “disappointed and discouraged” by the invitations. But in fact, some students wrote that they strongly objected to the invitations. Whether this is an implicit call for the revocation of the invitations is a matter upon which reasonable minds can disagree. But in our estimation, it warranted inclusion.

The second is the disinvitation of physician Emily Wong from delivering Hampshire College’s commencement address last year. Hiltzik alleges that we twisted the narrative when we stated that Wong was disinvited “because she could not ‘directly address student concerns’ such as transphobia, racial issues, and sexual violence.” It is true that the ability to address those concerns was noted as a reason for the replacement commencement speaker. If Wong had been able to address those concerns, there would not have been a reason to replace her. Nevertheless, in light of Hiltzik’s point that it appears FIRE appropriated praise for one speaker to turn it into criticism of another, we will be modifying the database to more clearly explain the controversy.

Hiltzik also argues that unsuccessful disinvitation attempts are not damaging to freedom of expression because they were unsuccessful, and that, in any event, disinvitation demands are an exercise of free speech. On this point, FIRE agrees and disagrees.

Disinvitation demands are indeed an exercise of free speech, and despite finding them illiberal, FIRE would defend the rights of students to make such demands. But it does not follow that an unsuccessful disinvitation attempt does no damage. As I noted earlier, the damage is in the uncorrected belief that students should not hear out those with whom they disagree. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Learning how to think critically and grapple with disagreeable views is an essential component of the higher education experience, and the illiberal demands to the contrary are an unfortunate sign that our colleges and universities are not doing enough to instill that foundational concept in students.

Relatedly, Hiltzik concludes, FIRE is “simple-minded” in counting disinvitation demands, because there is a legitimate question “of when a speaker’s views should be judged as disqualifications for him or her to appear on campus.”

Again, I am forced to disagree. Those extending campus speaking invitations are surely tasked with determining from whom they would like to hear. And for that reason, FIRE does not include in our database incidents where students decide of their own volition that they would rather not hear from a particular speaker. But once the inviting party has determined that they would like to hear out a particular speaker, it is certainly not the place of others on campus to determine for them whether or not such a speaker is “qualified.” If students don’t wish to hear a speaker, they can opt not to attend a campus event. Or they can attend and ask questions or debate the speaker during a Q&A session. But while students are within their rights to criticize a speaking invitation, it is utterly illiberal to demand that anyone who would like to hear from the speaker not be allowed to do so.

FIRE is glad that many are finding our Disinvitation Database valuable as they consider the broader disinvitation phenomenon and what it means for higher education. We invite readers to dig through the data themselves and draw their own conclusions. As commencement season rapidly approaches, I am sure that this is not the last we’ll hear on the subject of disinvitations, so stay tuned for more.

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