Why Are We So Afraid of Controversy?

By November 20, 2006

According to an article in today’s New York Post, Brown University’s Hillel has rescinded a speaking invitation to Egyptian-born author Nonie Darwish after complaints from Brown’s Muslim Student Association. The Post’s Adam Brodsky writes:

But the event was just called off.

Muslim students had complained that Darwish was “too controversial.” They insisted she be denied a platform at Brown, and after contentious debate Hillel agreed.

Weird: No one had said boo about such Brown events as a patently anti-Israel “Palestinian Solidarity Week.” But Hillel said her “offensive” statements about Islam “alarmed” the Muslim Student Association, and Hillel didn’t want to upset its “beautiful relationship” with the Muslim community.

It is Hillel’s right to disinvite Ms. Darwish, just as it was their right to invite her in the first place. But the incident says something very sad about many students’ attitudes toward free speech. It seems that at least some students (and in my opinion, one student is too many) have internalized the dangerous message that universities have been spreading for years: that people have a “right not to be offended,” and that controversy is to be avoided at all costs. The university—which is supposed to be the quintessential marketplace of ideas—is exactly the place where controversial but crucial issues such as the conflict between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East should be hashed out openly and without fear. Instead, potentially controversial speakers are unwelcome because their opinions might “alarm” others (you may recall another incident several months ago, when Columbia University invited and then quickly disinvited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad).

The fact that Brown’s Hillel believed that Darwish’s speech would jeopardize its relationship with the Muslim Student Association speaks volumes about the free speech climate at Brown (which is also currently taking heat for arbitrarily suspending a religious student organization). It signals that too many students do not appreciate the value of free speech and open debate—something that I believe is in large part the fault of a university culture that bombards students with the message that individual sensitivities trump free speech. In an environment where free speech was valued, both Hillel and the Muslim Student Association would welcome debate on an issue profoundly affecting both groups.

Schools: Brown University Columbia University