Students & Parents | Freedom of Expression

Ayers controversy familiar on college campuses

CASPER STAR-TRIBUNE   |  April 9, 2010 by Anne D. Neal

They’ve followed the “speaker controversy” script to a tee at the University of Wyoming. It’s the same one that has played out at Nebraska, Columbia, UT-Austin, and on so many other campuses across the country. Someone at the university—a student group, a professor, or maybe an academic center—invites a speaker to whose views someone, either at the university or nearby, predictably will object.

Eventually, the word gets out and the usual brouhaha ensues. After many irate calls, angry letters, and vitriolic emails, the scheduled talk is canceled because of “security concerns.” The pundits weigh in and either chalk up a defeat for free speech or a victory for moral decency. Nothing is settled, nobody really wins, and the stage is set for the same circus to play itself out somewhere else. Even when the ending changes and the university decides to go ahead with the scheduled talk, the debate itself never advances beyond the usual fault lines.

At the University of Wyoming, it’s William Ayers whose speaking invitation has just been rescinded. The particulars of the controversy surrounding the former Sixties radical turned education professor are only of secondary interest. What really matters is the failure, once again, to distinguish between the wisdom to be exercised in the choice of speakers and the right to speak once an invitation has been extended.

No one has a right to address a university audience. Especially not someone like Professor Ayers, whose past behavior and involvement deserve our most profound condemnation. But once a university has made the decision to host a speaker, it is incumbent upon the administration to uphold the invitation and not cede to outside pressure. To disinvite the speaker on the grounds of “security concerns” is tantamount to a heckler’s veto—and, yes, clearly an attack on academic freedom.

On the issue of outside speakers and academic freedom, the American Association of University Professors has properly opined that “the freedom to hear is an essential condition of a university community and an inseparable part of academic freedom.”

Institutions should therefore consider whether bringing alternative viewpoints might enrich everyone’s education. The point is not to give the speaker any particular rights, but rather to honor the academic freedom of the students and faculty to hear thought-provoking arguments, to debate them, and indeed to protest them—peacefully. To disinvite the guest, wherever he or she lies on the political spectrum, is to take away the right of members of the university community to decide for themselves and to undermine the robust exchange of ideas that should be at the heart of higher education.

But with all of that said, academic freedom does not mean that all speakers must be given a forum to speak. This was a point well understood by Yale’s Woodward Committee, and it bears some examination here.

Yale University’s governing board convened the committee in 1974 in the midst of challenges surrounding controversial speakers in the ’60s and ’70s. While vigorously affirming the importance of free expression, the committee, headed by faculty member C. Vann Woodward, also made clear that academic freedom did not supplant the use of good judgment in the selecting of speakers.

Indeed, the committee called on those in the institution to exercise mature judgment in the selection of speakers, saying: “If freedom of expression is to serve its purpose, and thus the purpose of the university, it should seek to enhance understanding. Shock, hurt, and anger are not consequences to be weighed lightly.”

This is the larger issue here, and it is one that the Board of Trustees and the administration should be examining. Does the university have in place a system that responsibly governs the invitation of speakers and ensures that there is a robust exchange of ideas? If not, it should. And whatever exists, the administration and the board should stand up to outside pressures that diminish students’ right to read, listen, speak, and think for themselves.

Anne D. Neal is a First Amendment lawyer and the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.


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