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5 Questions for . . .



Meredith Derecho, class of 2018, East Asian Studies, Yale University

Lauren Britt-Elmore, recent graduate, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Javier Espinoza, class of 2017, Luskin School of Public Affairs, UCLA

Kirsten Hoyte, Department of English, Concord Academy

Michael Jeffries, Associate Professor of American Studies, Wellelsley College

Michael Salamone, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Washington State University

Jonathan Sawday, Walter J. Ong, S.J., Professor in the Humanities, Saint Louis University

Olga Shurchkov, Associate Professor of Economics, Wellesley College

3. Who, if anyone, should not be allowed to speak at colleges or high schools?  What, if anything, is out of bounds to say?


Meredith Derecho

I'm not really sure about high schools.


As for the contents of speeches at colleges, I pretty much think that anything goes. The more viewpoints that get thrown around and the more issues that get brought up, the better. On the other hand, the people who pick speakers should have confidence that the people they pick will state things intelligently and have something to add to the conversation on campus. 


Olga Shurchkov and Michael Jeffries

This is a really tough one as it is of course related to the great debate on the division between race/ethnicity and free speech. But anyway, I think that everyone should be allowed to speak. However, it should be out of bounds to use language that would further marginalize or belittle constituencies that already find themselves at a great disadvantage. As Jelani Cobb explains in his New Yorker article on this topic, "The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another."


Lauren Britt-Elmore

People who have been made popular by words and actions based on hate or ignorance should never have a forum at an educational institution. People who live lives that thrive on lack of knowledge are the antithesis of any school’s mission so there is no reason a school should provide them a platform.


That said, it gets trickier when you start to think about educated people who have opinions that are counter to the popular opinion of the campus. Sometimes having opposing views expressed can break up the “mutual admiration society” that often times gets fueled on a college campus. Sometimes it’s necessary to bring in someone to help students figure out what they truly believe. In those cases, it’s important for the academic institution to create a space where actual learning will occur. It starts by establishing ground rules that support respectful and query-based dialogue, for the students and the speaker. It might mean that there is substantial time left after a presentation for questions and answers (as opposed to the usually rushed 10 minutes). Or perhaps events are planned before or after a particular speaker for students to prepare and/or process what was said. Or some sort of online forum is created for the dialogue to continue. Regardless, a school's ultimate responsibility is to teach, so they must make sure anyone who is invited to speak on a campus contributes to learning in some way.


Saying anything that supports hatred, violence, bigotry, or ignorance is completely out of bounds. Educators are charged with shaping the hearts and minds of the next generation. We must make sure our children always stand on the right side of history. And if they don’t, we must equip them with the tools of self-knowledge and self-reflection to figure out why. Anything that undermines these two goals has no place in a school setting.


Jonathan Sawday

It’s customary, on this kind of question, to quote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” Note the word “falsely” in that formulation. Though Holmes himself eventually stepped back a little from this position, his view (and the view of succeeding courts) was that there is no absolute right to unprotected speech. Colleges and universities have, it seems to me, a considerable burden laid upon them to encourage debate. Causing offense (even gross offense) is not enough to sanction a speaker within this context. But, I would note John Milton’s great sonnet of 1645-6 (“I did but prompt the age…”) which draws the distinction between license and liberty and which castigates those who “bawl for freedom… when Truth would set them free.” Determining the truth is not easy; anymore than determining what is out of bounds to say. But every speech act has consequences, and sometimes the negative consequences of that act outweigh the individual’s right to speak. Back to Justice Holmes, I think…


Javier Espinoza

Anyone should be able to say whatever they want. But every action has a consequence and if someone is coming to campus professing hate speech then any form of resistance should be expected. If violence erupts so be it. Violence and money are the only languages U.S. institutions understand and yield to.


Kirsten Hoyte

I don't think there is anyone who "should not be allowed to speak at colleges," though I suspect that there are some speakers who are inappropriate or perhaps too academic for some high school students, particularly freshmen and sophomores. I suppose that I would be concerned about speakers who advocate violence, but otherwise, I am hard pressed to think of any category of speakers that should not be welcomed.


Michael Salamone

Educational institutions are places where ideas should be exchanged freely – even if those ideas are unpopular. Because of this, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of putting too many restrictions on who can speak or what can be said. Even ideas that are detestable to many may be part of an important academic conversation.


However, I do think it is appropriate for universities and the like to have some restrictions to ensure that speakers actually move the intellectual conversation forward. To that end, scientific claims made by speakers should be intellectually honest and based on evidence – so, in the absence of some game-changing new discovery, I do not think it would be appropriate for universities to invite someone to speak and make the argument that vaccines cause autism, or that manmade climate change is a hoax, or that or that HIV does not cause AIDS, and so forth.


I also think that it is important for educational institutions to ensure that their speakers are actually engaging ideas and not making ad hominem attacks against individuals or groups. For that reason, I think universities could be right to prevent speakers who have a history of relying on insults or offensive rhetoric rather than sound arguments.

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