Last Friday, Texas Southern University announced that Sen. John Cornyn would not speak as planned in the school’s commencement ceremony. In the face of student protests, the historically black university in Houston opted instead for Sen. Cornyn to return at a later date “in order to keep the focus on graduates and their families.”
This is nothing new. In fact, it’s quite common.
FIRE maintains a database that tracks disinvitations and calls for disinvitation going back as far as the year 2000. Our database lists more than 330 speakers who faced demands that they not speak on campus, many of whom did ultimately have their invitations rescinded. Cornyn now joins names one might expect — former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, political commentator Ann Coulter — and some unexpected ones. TV personality Fred Rogers, author Salman Rushdie, actor Stanley Tucci, and TV host Jerry Springer have also felt the sting of disinvitation attempts.
Just last week, students at Florida’s Bethune-Cookman University booed and turned their backs to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos following an unsuccessful disinvitation attempt. The University of Illinois yanked Nobel Laureate James Watson’s invitation after faculty members criticized him for statements they viewed as racist, sexist, and homophobic. And earlier this year students around the country called for the disinvitations of British alt-right media personality Milo Yiannopoulos, political scientist Charles Murray, and conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro. (Yiannopoulos has been the target of at least 15 disinvitation attempts since last year alone.)
Protest is a valuable tool for expressing First Amendment rights. But once a speaker has been invited to campus, administrators should fight the urge to rescind that invitation. Yielding to demands that a speaker be silenced means that the people most vocally in favor of censorship do indeed get to decide what values and opinions are allowed on campus — and which are not.
Suddenly the argument isn’t about First Amendment rights anymore, but suppression of those rights. And if everyone from sitting presidents to Mister Rogers can be subject to this kind of censorship, is there anyone out there who’s not?