Column: Are college campuses growing more intolerant of free speech? The numbers say no.

Middlebury College students turn their backs on Charles Murray (at lectern) on March 2. Shouts by protesters effectively ended his appearance.
(Lisa Rathke / AP)

The ugly incident at Vermont’s Middlebury College on March 2, in which a discussion featuring social scientist Charles Murray was ended by hecklers and a professor was injured in the ensuing melee, predictably has triggered a torrent of think pieces about the surge of political intolerance on our college campuses and the desire of our students for “emotional coddling.”

Paul Campos of the University of Colorado law school, who views such hand-wringing with appropriate skepticism, points us to a “database” of supposed attacks on free speech on campuses. He questions its sponsors’ assertion that the “number of attempts by students, faculty, and others to prevent those with whom they disagreed from speaking on campus,” which it terms “disinvitations,” set a record in 2016. The statistics were compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, which describes its mission as battling infringements of 1st Amendment rights in academia.

Campos is right. If anything, he doesn’t go far enough in exposing the shallowness of the database and the exaggerations in its analysis. A close examination reveals that what it chronicles actually is, if anything, the vibrancy of free speech on campus, not its suppression. Let’s take a look.

The increasing unwillingness to allow anyone on campus to hear ideas with which one disagrees poses a grave risk to students’ intellectual development.

— Ari Cohn, FIRE

We can start with FIRE’s basic assertion that the 43 “disinvitations” it logged in 2016 set a record, besting the previous record of 34 set in 2013. (FIRE’s analysis cites 42, but evidently one more was added after it was posted Dec. 20.)


“The increasing unwillingness to allow anyone on campus to hear ideas with which one disagrees,” intones Ari Cohn, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, “poses a grave risk to students’ intellectual development.”

That would be a concern if Cohn’s premise were true. But his database doesn’t make the case. The 43 incidents it logged last year represents a tiny fraction of all the speeches, panel discussions and debates on American campuses. As Campos notes, there are more than 4,000 universities in the U.S., each of which stages at least one commencement per year, and some more than one; speeches and debates featuring outsiders must occur tens of thousands of times a year at least.

FIRE is honest about the main reason for the spike in 2016: protests against the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, which account for 11 of the 43 incidents. Campos aptly describes Yiannopoulos as someone “whose total lifetime contribution to actual intellectual debate...can be calculated as approximately zero.”

The 11 Yiannopoulos cases, however, resulted in his being actually disinvited from campus only four times. In one instance, it was Yiannopoulos himself who canceled the appearance, though FIRE says “students canceled the event, featuring a speaker perceived as being bigoted.”

That points to the chief problem with the FIRE database: It treats every protest against a speaker as a blow against free speech, whether it resulted in a genuine disinvitation or not, whether the event was a commencement address or campus talk or panel discussion, and whether the protest came from on campus or off. Two of the 2016 “disinvitations” involved concert appearances by rapper Action Bronson, who was dropped from spring concerts at George Washington and Trinity College because some students find his lyrics about women offensive. Do concert gigs deserve the same treatment as, say, talks by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright? It’s a stretch, at least.

Then there’s the question about what qualifies as a “disinvitation.” The details of protests or expressions of disapprovals of speakers show that many of these are not genuine attempts “to prevent those with whom they disagreed from speaking on campus,” as FIRE describes them.

Consider a dual appearance of Vice President Joe Biden and former House Speaker John Boehner at Notre Dame’s commencement last year. FIRE lists these as the targets of disinvitations, but its only evidence is a letter from 89 students saying they were “disappointed and discouraged” by the invitations chiefly because of Biden’s tolerance for abortion. But the students didn’t call for the invitations to be rescinded or for Biden and Boehner to be prevented from speaking. When commencement arrived, they spoke, peaceably.

Then there’s the disinvitation of the physician Emily Wong as commencement speaker at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. FIRE asserts that this happened because Wong “could not ‘directly address student concerns’ such as transphobia, racial issues, and sexual violence,” which makes the episode sound like the height of loony leftism. But that’s a gross misrepresentation of what happened.

The truth is that the college president, Jonathan Lash, had selected Wong on his own because the students’ choices, including writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bernie Sanders, weren’t available. After students and faculty protested Lash’s high-handedness, he relented. The students, faculty and administration then settled on Reina Gossett, an activist writer and filmmaker whose “life and work,” according to Hampshire’s press release, “engage the issues that have been raised by students around anti-blackness, transphobia, and sexual violence.” FIRE took a phrase that applied to Gossett and turned it, inaccurately, into a critique of Wong.

Moreover, not every protest results in a speaker’s invitation being withdrawn. Only 24 “disinvitations” in 2016 resulted in a true withdrawn invitation; in FIRE’s full database of 331 incidents going back to 2000, only 145 were true disinvitations. Is a protest that fails to result in a withdrawn invitation a blow against free speech? Hardly. In many if not most cases, it’s an expression of free speech. Or is an invitation to give a talk on campus supposed to be immune from comment once it’s tendered?

The biggest flaw of the FIRE database is its conflation of commencements with campus talks and debates. As anyone knows who has spent even a semester on campus, one of these things is not like the others. Commencements account for about 40% of the incidents in FIRE’s database of 331 “disinvitations” dating back to 2000, and seven of the 43 cases last year.

But the dirty little secret about commencement gigs is that they’re seldom about fostering the free exchange of ideas on campus. Often they’re just the opposite—a chance for some luminary to utter the dreariest of forgettable platitudes to a somnolent audience baking under a hot sun on the Quad, in return for an honorary degree and a handsome stipend. We reported on this boondoggle in 2014, when a spate of protests against speakers such as Condoleezza Rice and International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde generated a flash flood of articles suggesting that academic freedom was in full retreat on the American campus.

Commencement appearances are more than neutral invitations to discussion and debate. Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, they’re endorsements of the speaker’s work and viewpoint by the university, which holds them up as exemplars of its academic principles.

That makes commencement addresses entirely appropriate targets of discussion and, yes, protest—especially so when students’ tuition fees are deployed to pay the speakers to function as decorations. Rice, whose fee for the Rutgers commencement at which she was to speak was $35,000, recognized the distinction when she voluntarily withdrew, even if FIRE doesn’t: “Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families,” she said. “Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”

What gets lost in FIRE’s simple-minded counting of “disinvitations” is the question of when a speaker’s views should be judged as disqualifications for him or her to appear on campus. Campos regards Holocaust deniers and Sandy Hook truthers as beyond the pale; some might add climate change deniers and promoters of the debunked vaccine-autism “link” in that hall of shame.

“Making the decision whether a speaker should be heard in the first place is not ‘censorship,’” Campos writes, “unless censorship means making distinctions between speech that is likely to advance the mission of the university and that which will not. And if making that distinction is illegitimate, then the intellectual life itself becomes totally impossible.”

Whether Charles Murray, co-author of the openly racist book “The Bell Curve,” has anything useful to add to the debate about race in America, human intelligence, or genetics is certainly debatable. It’s fair to say that the “heckler’s veto,” in which a speaker is shouted down, is inappropriate on campus, as is violence. But raising the question of whether a particular speaker should have been invited on campus in the first place is exactly the sort of debate that should happen even more often.

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