Most often, when FIRE talks about “disinvitations,” the conversation revolves around colleges formally rescinding invitations to speakers because of something controversial associated with the speaker, or students protesting the speaker so much that the school either withdraws its invitation or the speaker backs out “voluntarily.” In more extreme cases, sometimes students will shout down the speaker on stage.
However, a different type of disinvitation happened last week at Utah State University—thanks to a heckler’s veto of the worst kind. Feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian was slated to speak at Utah State until the university received an anonymous terrorist threat against her and anyone who attended the speech. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the email sent to the university threatened the “deadliest school shooting in American history” should it allow Sarkeesian to speak. The FBI and others are reportedly investigating the terror threat.
When people who disagree with speech decide to silence it, either through severe heckling, threats of violence, or actual violence rather than reasoned debate, the outcome (as my colleague Will Creeley said about the non-violent heckling of Ray Kelly at Brown University) is tragic for universities, where differing ideas should be welcome and celebrated. As FIRE has said time and time again, the answer to speech you don’t like is more speech, not vigilante censorship, and most certainly not threats of violence or terror.
Sarkeesian ultimately felt that she had to cancel her speech at Utah State for fear that she or her attendees might be harmed, on the grounds that “police wouldn't take steps to prevent concealed firearms at the event” such as pat-downs or metal detectors. (She has received such threats in the past; the FBI is reportedly investigating those, too.) Utah State, for its part, says that it was prevented from taking some steps by Utah’s open carry laws, but also said that it was “taking every precaution to ensure the safety” of attendees.
Regardless of the specifics of Utah’s open carry laws, universities do absolutely have an obligation to make sure that reasonable steps are taken to protect speakers—particularly when credible threats are made against them or when there may be violence toward them for their speech. Utah State should have worked harder to ensure that Sarkeesian would be safe speaking on its campus. Frankly, it’s difficult to believe that this would not have been possible to do while also staying within the bounds of state and federal law.
It is truly a shame that Sarkeesian’s speech was met with a threat of violence and that the threat was allowed to derail the event. Universities should always keep in mind their duty not just to allow speech, but also to defend speakers so that ideas can be vetted and exchanged in the place where that’s most important—the college campus.