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Three Criteria for Campus Speakers: A Proposal

April 20, 2017

I have no love for Ann Coulter. Even so, I’m sorry to learn that this NYT article does not hint at the content of her planned talk. Content should be the focus, but it’s being overshadowed by other factors.

The article homes in on preemptive threats of violence. Given that, and assuming the planned talk meets certain criteria (see below), California Governor Jerry Brown ought to consider performing a “Reverse Reagan.” By this I mean that he should consider calling in the National Guard to secure speaking rights for controversial guests. I can’t say whether this should apply to the Coulter talk, but I think it could be necessary in the short term. It is ridiculous that speakers are being cancelled because campuses are being deemed unsafe for reasons one might classify, very loosely, as symbolism.

My criteria for valid invitations includes three points–two are content related, and the third deals with tone. The speaker—whether known as a politician, talk-show host, celebrity, comedian, or pseudo-intellectual—ought to be invited for their ability to (1) further academic conversations, ideas, and research, or (2) implore and inspire students to higher moral and ethical grounds. (3) The underlying criteria for those two points, or an important assumption, is seriousness in tone over and above provocation.

These criteria should be employed with regular campus speakers and those invited for graduation-convocation events.

If the speaker, during the speech act, violates these criteria, then there is justification for protest, a heckler’s veto, cancellation, or removal.

Thoughts? What am I missing? – TL

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4 Comments
  1. There is little agreement on what is “higher moral and ethical grounds” in our society. Does it include the views of Peter Singer, a moral philosopher? Just asking. There is little agreement on abortion, assisted suicide, the bounds of sexuality, the ethics of market economics, the nature of the common good.

    • Lilian: Thanks for commenting. Again, these invitations should be screened by all parties to hash out whether a given topic, in a given campus setting, will either inspire (in a commencement setting) or further conversation about a controversial topic. So I’d invite Singer for a serious academic discussion or paper talk, but not to a commencement address. As for the string of topics you listed, those are not appropriate, really, for commencements and convocations. But all could be discussed in an academic setting—one where seriousness rather than provocation was required. – TL

  2. A 4th point or condition is needed for my post: No speaker deemed by a campus committee to be excessively controversial on matters related to race, gender, sexuality, or religion should be given a spot without a programmed and explicit response at the same event.

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  1. A Three-Step Process for Solving the Campus Speaker Problem | Thinking Through History

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