FIRE has reported on the many occurrences of controversial commencement speakers being disinvited or withdrawing from their engagements because of student or faculty demands. Around this time every year, colleges send out invitations to public figures, asking them to speak to students at commencement. Almost immediately after those invitations are sent out, protests against those speakers begin. Accordingly, we’ve taken to calling the spring “disinvitation season.”
Last month, Pasadena City College (PCC) in California disinvited Dustin Lance Black, winner of an Academy Award for the screenplay of Milk, after members of the Board of Trustees learned of the existence of explicit online photos of Black. Referring to a controversy at PCC last year regarding a professor who resigned after admitting to inappropriate relations with students, PCC’s Board chair, Anthony Fellow, tried to distance himself from any possible controversies:
“With the porno professor and the sex scandals we’ve had on campus this last year, it just didn’t seem like the right time for Mr. Black to be the speaker,” Mr. Fellow said. “We’ll be on the radio and on television. We just don’t want to give PCC a bad name.”
Contradicting Fellow’s statement, another PCC administrator, Robert H. Bell, claimed the original invitation to Black was a total accident, and that the confusion between administrators was “an honest error.” Bell apologized and rescinded the “mistaken” invitation.
Predictably, the decision to disinvite Black, not the decision to invite him in the first place, has given PCC a bad name—and unsurprisingly, Black has voiced his displeasure with the outcome.
After disinviting Black, PCC invited Pasadena Director of Public Health Eric Walsh, only to find itself embroiled in controversy again after church sermons surfaced in which Walsh criticized homosexuality, rap artists, and Harry Potter. (At least they didn’t pick a controversial speaker!)
Perhaps PCC’s reversal will spark a new trend of colleges realizing their mistake and re-inviting speakers they’ve disinvited. There’s precedent: Author Alice Walker gracefully accepted her post-disinvitation re-invitation to speak at the University of Michigan last fall. But better yet, schools should simply skip disinviting speakers in the first place. Indulging a refusal to hear opposing ideas, not controversial speakers, is what truly gives universities a bad name.