The lessons colleges and universities are learning from hosting controversial speakers
In a time of both increasing diversity and deepening political divides, U.S. colleges and universities are discovering the indispensable need for free speech and the injustices that certain language can perpetuate. Public institutions, in particular, are finding themselves torn between their desire to promote political discourse, students’ ideologies, federal law, and the ideas and intentions of invited speakers.
[Above: Above: Violent anti-fascists disrupt a peaceful demonstration by UC Berkeley students, who were protesting a speaking event by Milo Yiannopoulos, in February. (photo via Brittany Hosea-Small/UC Regents)]
Yet many believe that institutions of higher learning, by nature, are responsible for encouraging and facilitating this type of engagement — despite the challenges, complications, and backlash that may accompany it.
“The university has a unique obligation to foster discourse by creating more of it, rather than shutting down particular types,” says Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, the director of litigation with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit foundation dedicated to defending individual rights in American higher education, including free speech, legal equality, religious freedom, and more. “Shutting down hurtful or hateful speech doesn’t mean that it goes away, that the [dialogue] will dissipate; it will just push that discourse into other channels where it doesn’t have the opportunity to be responded to.”
With an increased focus on diversity on campuses, and colleges’ tendency to be more liberal-leaning, white conservative students have felt like outsiders, says Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit organization that combats hate, intolerance, and discrimination with education and litigation. “Some of them have felt marginalized on campus with the shifting demographics that are happening across the United States and the focus in the last decade or so on building safe and inclusive communities,” she says. “Often, white students feel left out of those conversations; they don’t feel like a part of the movement.”
More than excluded, these students have expressed feeling unwelcome and afraid to share their views and perspectives on campus. Taking advantage of this void — invigorated by the election of President Donald Trump — white nationalists like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer are moving in to fill it, Brooks says. The former editor of the far-right Breitbart News, Yiannopoulos is an outspoken critic of feminism, social justice, transgender rights, and the Black Lives Matter movement and is known for his offensive and hateful comments toward members of marginalized groups. Spencer, president of the white national think tank the National Policy Institute, is a white supremacist who advocates for a white ethno-state and “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”
“It’s not only the election of Donald Trump, but also the entire presidential campaign, that was filled with dehumanizing, incendiary rhetoric about people — first immigrants, then Mexicans [and] Muslims — which served to embolden white nationalists. So when Trump won, they became even more emboldened,” Brooks says. “Spencer and Yiannopoulos, in particular, made it their cause de jour to recruit white college students.”
At the University of Colorado Boulder (CU), the president of the College Republicans — a group that invited Yiannopoulos to speak at the college in February — described to the Denver Post campus environments in which conservatives are “almost forced into silence for what they believe.” He added that the organization’s decision to invite Yiannopoulos to speak on CU’s campus was “more of a statement to promote our right to belong than it is to espouse his ideas.”
But despite the reasons cited by students for extending such invitations, the upheaval and protests sparked by these events illustrate the profound impact certain ideas and speech can have — regardless of whether or not that speech is protected.
“The thing that Yiannopoulos and Spencer are preaching is separatism,” says Brooks. “When you accept and elevate white nationalists, you are essentially saying you support separatism, … and that is not the direction we need to be headed.”
Known as the home of the free speech movement, the University of California (UC), Berkeley, has supported its students’ First Amendment rights for decades, but earlier this year, the administration was tested when the Berkeley College Republicans invited Yiannopoulos to speak at the university — one stop of many on his “Dangerous Faggot” campus tour.
Reactions to news of the event were mixed, which was largely based on individuals’ understanding of the First Amendment, says Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor of executive communications. As a public institution, UC Berkeley allows independent student organizations to host speaking events on campus — a privilege enjoyed by all groups regardless of their affiliations or ideologies — and was not legally able to cancel Yiannopoulos’ speech based on its content.
“It became obvious that there are many people, both among members of our campus community and beyond, who don’t fully understand the First Amendment, who believe there is some sort of exclusion for hate speech — and there’s not; who believe there is some sort of exclusion for harassing or deeply insulting and aggressive rhetoric, and there is not,” Mogulof says. “If, on the other hand, you fully understand the First Amendment, you may have understood that the university had little choice.”
Despite pressure from both students and faculty — over 100 professors signed a petition urging the administration to cancel the event — UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks refused to give in, iterating his and the university’s commitment to upholding freedom of speech, including the rights of students to peacefully protest the event.
In a letter to the university community on January 26, Dirks defended Yiannopoulos’ right to speak while condemning his ideology: “We are defending the right to free expression at a historic moment for our nation, when this right is once again of paramount importance. In this context, we cannot afford to undermine those rights, and feel a need to make a spirited defense of the principle of tolerance, even when it means we tolerate that which may appear to us as intolerant,” he wrote. “In our view, Mr. Yiannopoulos is a troll and provocateur who uses odious behavior in part to ‘entertain,’ but also to deflect any serious engagement with ideas. … We regard [his] act as at odds with the values of this campus.”
But the February 1 event never happened, as peaceful protests turned violent and law enforcement decided Yiannopoulos needed to be evacuated for his own safety, effectively canceling the engagement, Mogulof says. According to Brooks, that peaceful student protestors turned violent is a misconception, as SPLC had information that an anti-fascist group had been planning to sabotage the event, along with others across the country, including a speech Yiannopoulos gave a month earlier at the University of Washington in Seattle, where one demonstrator was shot.
For some students, especially those of marginalized identities, the fact that the First Amendment’s application is universal — it can’t be dissected and applied to allow only the most acceptable views to be heard — may be a difficult concept to accept. But allowing individual institutions to decide what voices and ideas have merit opens all students up to censorship, warns Beck-Coon.
“If [a university] is given the power to determine what is acceptable speech to allow its students to engage in on campus or to bring to campus, that is an extremely dangerous tool,” she says, “… because it can be turned around so easily on any speech or any viewpoint.”
UC Berkeley acknowledges the importance of allowing this discourse to take place, Mogulof says, with a focus on ensuring both the rights of students to invite speakers and those of other students to peacefully protest.
“We believe deeply in the fundamental idea of free speech, and not just because it’s such a part of our legacy and history, but also because … it’s a foundational piece of our educational mission — to expose our students to the full range of ideas and perspectives that mirror [those] they will need to confront when they leave the university,” he says, adding that the university is far more diverse — with all sides of the political spectrum represented — than the stereotypical view of UC Berkeley. “If we’re [a university] where a contrary word is never heard, we don’t feel we can support our commitment to the educational objectives we have for our students. But that doesn’t mean we have to like or endorse the people who come [here].”
But regardless of the administration’s stance on Yiannopoulos’ ideas, Mogulof says UC Berkeley was disappointed that the event was subverted. He hopes that members of the campus community see what happened as a learning opportunity and take time to think about their own beliefs and the consequences of their actions.
“This is a moment for the community and for all of us as individuals to reflect on what it means when those sorts of tactics of disruption are used, who benefits, and what that portends for our future as an institution of higher education and also as a country,” he says. “Hopefully people won’t take for granted … the freedoms that we have and how important it is to expose ourselves even to those opinions that we so deeply disagree with and find to be offensive.”
Unified for Diversity
Presented with a similar situation in December, Texas A&M University responded to divisiveness with unity.
When a member of the College Station community invited Spencer to speak, an event the university didn’t become aware of until it was reported in the media, President Michael Young released a statement affirming the university’s commitment to diversity and free speech while denouncing the white nationalist’s views. After reviewing their options, Texas A&M leadership decided that legally there was nothing they could do but allow the event to take place, says Amy Smith, senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer.
“We knew we had to do the hard thing and that was to let this person speak,” she says. But that didn’t mean the university couldn’t host its own event. “[We said,] ‘We are going to have an event ourselves, and we’re going to call it Aggies United; it’s going to be the same night, the same time, and we’re going to raise our voices about our freedom of expression and about diversity and inclusion,’” Smith adds.
The December 6 Aggies United event brought together 7,000-plus students, faculty, staff, administrators, and community members in a celebration of unity and diversity. It featured a lineup of inspirational speakers and entertainers, including singer-songwriter Ben Rector and singer and actress V. Bozeman, as well as musical performances by students and faculty. By comparison, around 400 people attended Spencer’s speech, and Smith says most of them were there to protest.
While she admits that Texas A&M still has work to do to ensure that students of all backgrounds and ideologies feel welcome and included on campus, Smith says the community was able to come together for the event. “We still have a long way to go, we still have issues that we face, we still have implicit biases that all of us are challenged to improve upon,” she says. “We’re by no means a campus without issues in the realm of diversity and inclusion, but we were united that night.”
Since news of both events has spread, Smith says she has received calls from administrators at other colleges and universities who want to learn from the campus’s experience to help guide them in handling similar situations on their own campuses. But whereas Texas A&M is being held up as an example of what can be achieved when one does what is right — and lawful — other colleges and universities have faced criticism.
In November, New York University disinvited Yiannopoulos, citing safety concerns, and a number of other colleges, both public and private, have either outright canceled or prevented his events by other means, such as with security fees. DePaul University and the University of Miami, for example — although they are private institutions and not legally bound by the First Amendment — have required that students assume additional security costs for hosting Yiannopoulos, whom DePaul officials have said creates a “dangerous” situation.
Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for FIRE, maintains that at public institutions, such fees are often unconstitutional. “… Public colleges and universities must use viewpoint-neutral criteria, such as how many people are expected to attend [an] event, for determining the amount of any applicable fees,” he says.
In response to what they see as an infringement on free speech on college campuses, lawmakers in some states have introduced or passed legislation. In Tennessee, two Republican lawmakers have proposed a bill, dubbed the “Milo Bill,” to specifically address what they argue is discrimination against conservative viewpoints on campuses.
FIRE’s Beck-Coon says the organization is typically supportive of state legislation that further ensures freedom of speech in higher education — but there are limits. “We would never support legislation that was attempting to elevate one viewpoint over another or create particular protections for a certain viewpoint,” she says.
Yet Brooks argues that such measures are not necessary because “free speech is already constitutionally protected.” Instead, she believes colleges could be doing more to create opportunities for these young people to engage, adding that many of these students come from K-12 schools that are deeply “segregated.”
“When kids go to college, it’s often the first time they’ve been around all this diversity, and it [can be] unsettling,” says Brooks. “The same thing happens for students of color.”
Smith agrees, recognizing that part of the beauty of diversity is the divergent perspectives it brings.
“If you look at the root of ‘university,’ it is ‘universe’ — and that’s what a university is about,” she says. “It’s about bringing people from all walks of life together in a learning environment, and they’re going to disagree sometimes.”●
Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.