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A Three-Step Process for Solving the Campus Speaker Problem

April 25, 2017

I disapprove of the title and larger point of this New Republic article by Aaron Hanlon. That said, I was following along through the passages I excerpt below, and even nodding in agreement. Hanlon’s passages:

Understanding this sequence of events is crucial, because no-platforming is as much a function of process as of politics. Instead of community-wide discussion and debate over the merits of bringing a given speaker to campus, the debate happens after the invitation, giving the misleading impression that no-platforming is about shutting down speech. Indeed, when savvier campus groups deliberately choose controversial speakers, they’ve already won half the battle by getting the speaker approved. After that, every value judgment against the speaker, however thoughtful, reasonable, or prudent, becomes an attempt to silence the speaker and “shield students from scary ideas.” Even when disinvitation is a product of nonviolent counter-speech or serious safety concerns due to violent protests from both the left and the right, provocateurs like Coulter erroneously claim violation of their “constitutional rights.” This is how a conversation about value becomes a conversation about censorship and “safe spaces.”

Because of this dynamic, critics of no-platforming are correct from a tactical standpoint: students won’t win the rhetorical battle by disrupting campus events. Speakers with a hateful message become martyrs of the “tyrannical campus left” when protesters prevent them from speaking—particularly when things turn violent, as happened when Murray visited Middlebury College earlier this year. In a political climate that gratuitously portrays anyone young and educated as an entitled “snowflake,” the provocateur circuit—like Yiannopoulos’s “Dangerous Faggot Tour”—is a thriving business model. Right-wing speaker aggrandizement correlates directly with left-wing student resentment. And as Nossel and Friedersdorf point out, no-platforming will not defeat lousy or hateful ideas, especially when it takes the form of disrupting or violently protesting an event.

Hanlon is correct that the sequence of events is crucial, and that problems arise from perceptions (manipulated or otherwise) once a speaker event is scheduled and then canceled. Where I disagree is with what follows these passages. With that, I want to propose a three-step process for solving the campus speaker problem (exclusive of commencements, which involve different stakeholders and goals). I think this solution could apply to both public and private colleges. [This solution supersedes my overly broad April 20 post which mixed commencement with regular on-campus invitations.]

First, administrations at various colleges need to take full ownership of the on-campus speaker selection process. This means paying for the speakers (i.e. travel, board, room, honorarium) and guaranteeing safety. No on-campus speakers should be allowed who are funded by outside sources. I strongly suspect the reluctance to take full ownership of process is due to cost in a cost-conscious, austerity-driven (still) higher ed environment. Institutions are happy to let outside sources pay for speakers. Also, it smacks of giving freedom and choice to students, even when that “freedom” is actually dictated by groups that can afford to spend money planting speakers on campuses.

With that in place, secondly, then the institution would allow student groups to select/propose speakers according to their own ideological criteria. Those students and their groups need to be taught (i.e. instructed, given a rubric, guided) about selection and the consequences of accepting offers for on-campus and off-campus speakers. That rubric needs to be filled with caveats about protection and safety.

Third, after selections are made, they would be sent to a campus-wide committee of relevant stakeholders. That group must be composed of students, faculty, and staff. They would consider context, extent of potential controversy, and institutional mission. There would be clear criteria, when possible, about speakers guaranteed to be denied. An upper-level administrator could be present on the committee for input, but the decision of the committee would stand—to help separate speaker decisions from potentially autocratic presidents and/or trustees. If the choice is deemed overly “controversial,” the speaker could still be allowed but in a panel or refutation-speaker format. That panel would be composed of various opposition groups—a spectrum. The point is to not allow an unopposed controversial speaker.

That’s it. If you’re on a public or private campus and don’t follow the process, then the institution can’t allow the selection. These rules would not apply to speakers at off-campus events. Only the town/city/community rules would apply. Otherwise, I think this goes toward sidelining the post-invitation “no platforming” problem while providing input and consideration of context for speaker decisions.

Problems: This is expensive. This is not free-flowing, and doesn’t give ultimate choice to the students. One would need to define “speaker” and decide the on-campus venues that require vetting (e.g. auditoriums, open-air areas, anything larger than a classroom, etc.). It’s entirely possible that I’m missing various means of manipulating the process. [Update: On manipulation, I mean for this process to be focused on student speaker invitations and to be exclusive of academic conferences run by professors—which I assume also must be approved by administration.]

Thoughts? Let’s work on this. – TL


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