It is the season of campus thuggery and bizarre double-standards on the range of acceptable speech on campus. While luminaries are disinvited from giving commencement speeches and even non-commencement speaking invitations are revoked or speakers are shouted down, Dartmouth apparently is paying Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness (no, I’m not making that up) Angela Davis $20,000 and providing first-class travel and accommodations to give a speech (not at commencement though).  (As a side note, I confess that I didn’t even know she was still alive, much less that she was a affiliated with a speakers bureau and earned $20,000 a pop.)

I thought it might be useful to consider an alternative approach that a university might take to how to deal with controversial speech, as articulated by our GMU law school Dean Dan Polsby, responding a few years ago to a kerfuffle around the invitation of a controversial speaker by a student group:

It appears that there is need to clarify the policy affecting speakers at the law school.

Student organizations are allocated budget by the Student Bar Association in order to allow them, among other things, to bring speakers to the law school.  Neither the law school nor the university can be taken to endorse such speakers or what they say.  Law school administration is not consulted about these invitations, nor should we be.  Sometimes speakers are invited who are known to espouse controversial points of view.  So be it.  So long as they are here, they are free to say whatever is on their mind within the bounds of law.   They cannot be silenced and they will not be.

Just as speakers are free to speak, protesters are free to protest.  They must do so in a place and in a manner that respects the rights of speakers to speak and listeners to listen, and that is in all other ways consistent with the educational mission of the university.  Student organizations which hold contrary points of view have every right to schedule their own programs with their own speakers, and these speakers’ rights will be protected in just the same way.

The law school will not exercise editorial control over the words of speakers invited by student organizations, nor will we take responsibility for them, nor will we endorse or condemn them.  There has to be a place in the world where controversial ideas and points of view are aired out and given space.  This is that place.

Daniel D. Polsby
Professor of Law, Dean

Believe it or not, students and faculty can survive with only minimal trauma from the presence of a speaker on campus with whom they disagree.

I realize that commencement addresses can raise peculiar issues. But the thuggery isn’t just limited to commencement addresses. And even there, to suggest that the former Secretary of State or the head of the IMF is too controversial to be a commencement speaker, or that they would provide remarks at a commencement that are beyond the pale, is beyond the realm of all reason.

Update: I forgot to mention Stephen Carter’s take on this issue that has been making the rounds as well, “Dear Class of 2014: Thanks for Not Disinviting Me.”

Update: It was pointed out to me that as I originally posted this some readers thought that I was saying that Angela Davis was Dartmouth’s commencement speaker, which she is not, and I’ve clarified the post accordingly.