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Free Speech

Why the University of Nebraska should not have disinvited Bill Ayers from speaking on campus.
THE NEW REPUBLIC   |  December 8, 2008 by Anne D. Neal

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Academic Senate is calling for an independent investigation into the UNL administration’s recent decision to disinvite Bill Ayers. In doing so, the senate aims to develop a set of guidelines to determine how and when to cancel speaking invitations in the future. While some may wonder why anyone would still care about the former co-founder of the Weather Underground, this continuing controversy underscores how profoundly confused those within the academy—and those outside of it—are about the concept of academic freedom. 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. The real question, which the senate is ignoring, is whether a speaker should be invited in the first place.

UNL had invited Bill Ayers, now a University of Illinois at Chicago professor, to speak at its education college’s centennial celebration. A day after the invitation was publicized and the school was bombarded with emails and phone calls, UNL chancellor Harvey Perlman revoked the invitation, citing “security concerns.” Let there be no question: Professor Ayers’ past behavior and involvement deserve our most profound condemnation. Even so, to disinvite him on the grounds of “security concerns” was tantamount to a heckler’s veto—and, yes, clearly an attack on academic freedom.

On 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.” To disinvite thus fundamentally undermines the concept of academic freedom by allowing those who dislike someone’s view to keep those views from being heard. This is what happened when Dinesh D’Souza tried to speak at Columbia some years ago, and when Henry Kissinger tried to speak at the University of Texas at Austin. Disinviting, in these or any circumstances, is unacceptable—across the board. Once a guest has been invited through appropriate university procedures, it is incumbent on the institution to take whatever steps are necessary to allow the speaker to air his views.

Furthermore, institutions should, at the same time, 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. The Yale Corporation 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.”

It continued: “It is appropriate for the University official to explain to [a] group [wanting to invite a controversial speaker] its moral obligations to other members of the community. It is important, however, for the official to make it clear that these are moral obligations for the inviters to weigh along with other considerations in deciding whether to go forward.” The report goes on to say that if the group does go forward, the university should take no action to prohibit or even inconvenience the invitation.

This is the larger issue here, and it is one that the Nebraska Board of Regents and the chancellor—not just the Academic Senate—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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