Disinvitation Season, Free Speech, and Unlearning Liberty

03/10/2014 03:23 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2014
  • Greg Lukianoff President and CEO, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Every year around commencement time my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), gets ready for what we call "disinvitation season." That is the time, usually early in the spring, when students and faculty get together to demand that an invited guest speaker--usually a commencement speaker--be disinvited, because the students or faculty members disagree with something that speaker did, said, or believes.

This year, however, disinvitation season got off to an especially early start with professors at Rutgers University joining together to demand that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice be disinvited as their commencement speaker. In a letter to the university community sent late last week, the Rutgers administration made it clear that they had no intention of dis-inviting Rice. For those of us who believe that students should be exposed to a variety of viewpoints, this was a positive development. However, it would not be unprecedented for a university in Rutgers' position to later on change its mind and decide to disinvite the speaker or just quietly encourage them to withdraw. Even when universities don't capitulate to these demands, students have been known to organize to effectively silence a speaker via the "heckler's veto"--most notoriously at Brown University, where students prevented former NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly from speaking last fall.

It's hard to be sure, but after having watched disinvitation season for so many years now, it certainly seems to me that the push to get speakers disinvited is becoming more common, and the likelihood of those pushes succeeding is increasing. This isn't just a hunch; I have been maintaining a growing list of about 120 speaker controversies over recent years, and it is certainly not exhaustive. It also includes numerous high-profile dis-invitations, or decisions by speakers to withdraw under pressure, such as Ben Carson, Geraldo Rivera, Robert Zoellick, Ann Coulter, Ben Stein, Meg Whitman, and James Franco, just to name a few.

As a First Amendment/free speech lawyer, I fully support the rights of faculty and students to make their opinions known about the decision of a university to invite any speaker. That being said, freedom of speech and academic freedom depend on our ability to handle hearing opinions we dislike and constructively and creatively engaging those opinions. Free inquiry and academic freedom, especially, require some amount of epistemic humility (that is, recognizing that we do not and cannot know everything) and an ability to acknowledge that even the opinion or person we really dislike might be able to reveal some portion of truth of which we are unaware. It's also important that we recognize that even if a speaker does happen to be entirely wrong, that we might learn more about our own beliefs or about the complex relationships among beliefs by allowing that person to speak.

But I fear that as our society is increasingly able to segregate itself according to the news and information we receive, and as we demonstrably move to more ideologically homogeneous neighborhoods (as documented by books like Bill Bishop's wonderful The Big Sort), we're coming to regard the intellectually healthy practice of hearing views with which we disagree not merely as an inconvenience, but as a violation of some kind of right not to be challenged. Disinvitation season is more evidence of these trends. Rather than teaching students to be skeptical of "confirmation bias," we may in fact be teaching them to have an "expectation of confirmation"--that is, a sense of entitlement to an environment in which they are not, at least too harshly, disagreed with.

I deal with all these issues extensively in my book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, which officially comes out on paperback tomorrow. The point of the book can be fairly easily expressed just by analyzing the title. "Unlearning Liberty" refers to my fear that students are learning to think like censors by asking themselves questions like "How can I stop this speaker I dislike from speaking here?" rather than "How do I learn as much as I can from engaging with someone I disagree with so fundamentally?" The second half of the title, "the End of American Debate," refers to the way campus speech codes, and dozens and dozens of other examples of clearly protected speech being censored on college campuses, encourage students to retreat into self-affirming cliques. When students talk only to those students with whom they already agree, while avoiding controversial engagement with those they do not, then our national tradition of productive debate and discussion is at grave risk.

The social science on what happens when you have like-minded people talking only amongst themselves is quite striking: People broken up into groups of the like-minded tend to become much more extreme in their opinion, while showing an increasingly poor ability to understand the point of view of anyone who disagrees with them. Over time, the phenomena could potentially lead the country into seeing those it disagrees with as caricatures of societal evil, rather than as people who come at the same problems from different perspectives.

The remedy to this situation is largely cultural. We need students--and, sadly, in some cases faculty--to recognize that one of the defining characteristics of an educated person is a commitment to seeking out the intelligent person with whom they disagree for debate and discussion. If we work to inculcate this attitude into our students and on our college campuses, it would go a long way towards making our tedious culture war that much more bearable.

But if we don't, and we continue to inadvertently cultivate the "expectation of confirmation" for students, we can only expect disinvitation season to get worse and worse every year, until universities decide that perhaps the only people they can invite to speak will be those who have nothing to say.