ACTA in the News | Free Speech

It’s Time for a Re-invitation Revolution

REALCLEAR EDUCATION   |  March 19, 2024 by Leslie Paige and Steven McGuire

Recent news that firebrand political writer and commentator Ann Coulter has accepted an invitation to speak in April at her alma mater, Cornell University, where she was shouted down in 2022 by protesters, is made much more interesting (and potentially precedent-setting) by the following twist. The invitation came not from the same student groups who invited her last time, but from Cornell Provost Michael Kotlikoff, who took a huge risk to send a clear signal that Cornell intends to right past wrongs and get the school on the right side of the free speech issue.

Provost Kotlikoff, in a statement explaining his actions, preemptively distanced himself from the always-controversial Ms. Coulter, but the rest of his explanation for inviting her back admirably sums up the reasons why Cornell needed to invite Ms. Coulter back.

“Having been deeply troubled by an invited speaker at Cornell (any speaker) being shouted down and unable to present their views, I agreed that there could be few more powerful demonstrations of Cornell’s commitment to free expression than to have Ms. Coulter return to campus and present her views,” the provost wrote in a letter to the editor of the Cornell Daily Sun. “This is certainly not because I agree with what she has to say, or because I feel that the content of her presentation is important for our community to hear, but because I believe that Cornell must be a place where the presentation of ideas is protected and inviolable. Shielding students or others in our community from viewpoints with which they disagree, or filtering campus speakers based on the content of their presentation, undermines the fundamental role of a university.”

Carve that statement into bronze and hang it in the faculty lounges and administrative offices of every college in America. Freedom of speech should be a defining value of American higher education, and we applaud Provost Kotlikoff for taking a stand for it. Good on Ms. Coulter for accepting the invitation, too.

Our inner optimist wonders whether this attempt at détente between Ms. Coulter and Cornell could set a lasting precedent with wider implications for higher education. Too often on American campuses, speakers are disinvited or shouted down, never to return. The proper response should be to invite them back and ensure they have their say without interruption. Do any other administrators have the courage to follow Cornell’s lead?

We are thinking here about University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot, whose October 21, 2021, John Carlson Lecture at MIT on the topic of the habitability of planets outside our solar system was canceled. This was precipitated by online Twitter outrage, ginned up by a sorry rump group of academics worked up over positions he had taken on matters unrelated to his lecture topic.

Then there was U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan, who was shouted down on March 9, 2023, by Stanford Law School students, egged on by the school’s associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion. The now-former dean lectured Judge Duncan about why he had it coming and infamously asked him, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

Legal expert Ilya Shapiro ought to be invited back to the University of California–Hastings to give the talk he was scheduled to deliver on March 1, 2022. Yale Law School should reinvite its guests to finish the moderated debate they began on January 24, 2023.

If this commonsense trend gathers enough momentum, perhaps even the campuses that crossed the line into violence could try to make amends. Middlebury College could reinvite Charles Murray, while San Francisco State University could beg Riley Gaines to come back. Of course, they would have to guarantee the safety of their guests.

In each of these cases, top university officials should be the ones to extend the invitations, and they should offer to introduce their guests and participate in the full event. It is often students and sometimes faculty and staff who demand cancelations, shout down speakers, and, in some cases, assault guests. But it is school administrators who disgrace themselves and abdicate their duties to stand athwart the mobs and stop the violence, who refuse to impose appropriate sanctions on the perpetrators, and who bloviate about the institutions’ values, rather than showing the moral courage to model those values themselves.

Only when the re-invitations have been issued and the disrespected speakers have delivered their remarks and been allowed to leave the campuses unharmed will we have a sense that university administrators have, at long last, decided to reject the dark, illiberal forces on their campuses and defend the fundamental purpose of the institutions they supposedly lead: the free pursuit of truth.

This post appeared in Real Clear Education on March 19, 2024.


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