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At Fordham University, President’s Criticism of Student Group Sparks Controversy

On Friday of last week, the Reverend Joseph M. McShane, president of Fordham University, sent an email to Fordham students and their parents strongly criticizing the Fordham College Republicans' decision to invite conservative commentator Ann Coulter to speak. Apparently unbeknownst to McShane, the College Republicans had already decided to rescind the invitation. The university's statement read as follows: 

The College Republicans, a student club at Fordham University, has invited Ann Coulter to speak on campus on November 29. The event is funded through student activity fees and is not open to the public nor the media. Student groups are allowed, and encouraged, to invite speakers who represent diverse, and sometimes unpopular, points of view, in keeping with the canons of academic freedom. Accordingly, the University will not block the College Republicans from hosting their speaker of choice on campus.

To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans, however, would be a tremendous understatement. There are many people who can speak to the conservative point of view with integrity and conviction, but Ms. Coulter is not among them. Her rhetoric is often hateful and needlessly provocative—more heat than light—and her message is aimed squarely at the darker side of our nature.

As members of a Jesuit institution, we are called upon to deal with one another with civility and compassion, not to sling mud and impugn the motives of those with whom we disagree or to engage in racial or social stereotyping. In the wake of several bias incidents last spring, I told the University community that I hold out great contempt for anyone who would intentionally inflict pain on another human being because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed.

"Disgust" was the word I used to sum up my feelings about those incidents. Hate speech, name-calling, and incivility are completely at odds with the Jesuit ideals that have always guided and animated Fordham.

Still, to prohibit Ms. Coulter from speaking at Fordham would be to do greater violence to the academy, and to the Jesuit tradition of fearless and robust engagement. Preventing Ms. Coulter from speaking would counter one wrong with another. The old saw goes that the answer to bad speech is more speech. This is especially true at a university, and I fully expect our students, faculty, alumni, parents, and staff to voice their opposition, civilly and respectfully, and forcefully. 

The College Republicans have unwittingly provided Fordham with a test of its character: do we abandon our ideals in the face of repugnant speech and seek to stifle Ms. Coulter's (and the student organizers') opinions, or do we use her appearance as an opportunity to prove that our ideas are better and our faith in the academy—and one another—stronger? We have chosen the latter course, confident in our community, and in the power of decency and reason to overcome hatred and prejudice.

While the university absolutely has the right to disassociate itself from and condemn Ann Coulter's speech, some have questioned whether this was truly the university's only intention when it issued the statement. FIRE President Greg Lukianoff summarizes this skepticism nicely in Inside Higher Ed today, stating that

I think you need to be extremely skeptical any time an official with great administrative power at a university, especially a university president, vehemently condemns a speaker and then the inviting group coincidentally happens to cancel that speaker, even if, as in this case, the president is saying that he supports free speech out of the other side of his mouth. I've seen too many cases over the years where university officials have tried to claim that their strong condemnation of speech wasn't really a direct order for the students to self-censor, but then when you talk to the students themselves it's pretty clear that they understood they did not have much choice in the matter. 

Others have questioned why the Catholic university chose to so strongly condemn Ann Coulter's speech while remaining silent about the upcoming appearance of philosopher Peter Singer—who has written that the killing of disabled newborns is ethically acceptable—on a university-sponsored animal rights panel. A Fordham alumnus posed this question in the comments section of a Fordham Observer article on the controversy: 

So what is Father McShane and the thoughtful Fordham Community's position on Peter Singer. I understand he is scheduled to participate shortly in a Fordham Ethics conference of some sort. Surely some of his lunatic ravings are "not the sort of things Fordham stands for." Ann Coulter is beyond the pale but Professor Singer is "part of the conversation."

A look through FIRE's case archives shows that Fordham would certainly not be the first university to hold double standards when it comes to what kinds of protected speech are and are not acceptable on campus. Indian River State College, for example, once prohibited a student group from showing "The Passion of the Christ"—ostensibly because of the film's R-rating—while simultaneously hosting a live performance of a play entitled "F*cking for Jesus." 

Although some members of the College Republicans have expressed their disappointment with the university's statement, they have thus far maintained that their decision to disinvite Coulter was not coerced. As FIRE has always said, the best response to bad speech is more speech, and the university's statement may simply have been nothing more than "more speech." Students are not too weak to live with freedom of speech—including critical speech—and this is as true for the university's free speech as it is for the free speech of fellow students. That being said, given FIRE's years of experience with the behavior of university administrations, we are always suspicious when a high-level university administrator uses his position of authority to discourage speech, and you can be certain that we will be watching closely to see if there is any more to this story. 

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