Last week, FIRE’s Samantha Harris reported that the University of Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women (CEW) had rescinded its invitation to The Color Purple author Alice Walker to speak at CEW’s 50th anniversary celebration. According to Inside Higher Ed, CEW and the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies are now asking Walker to speak on campus after all—but not at the 50th anniversary celebration.
Walker had claimed that she was disinvited because her criticism of Israel offended some university donors. But an email sent to faculty by Provost Martha E. Pollack last Friday stated that the decision to rescind Walker’s invitation “was based solely on the celebratory nature [CEW] hoped to achieve at their anniversary event.” (No, we don’t know what that means.) The email also emphasized “the university’s firm commitment to free speech and to the expression of diverse viewpoints.”
Pollack noted that she “respect[s] the right of individual academic units to make decisions about whom they invite to campus, consistent with university principles and values.” While universities are not obliged to invite any particular guests to speak, giving in to pressure from an already-invited speaker’s critics and rescinding that invitation risks establishing a heckler’s veto, a dangerous tool for silencing debate. Michigan—and all schools—must be careful not to allow this method of stifling unpopular views on controversial issues.