If I wanted to plan a newsworthy cancellation, I’d invite Robert George to a small liberal arts college to talk about the value of free speech.
Professor George (Princeton) is an accomplished scholar and civil fellow, not some disreputable alt-right provocateur whose invitation to a university campus might seem at odds with its professional standards. But Professor George is also known for being outspoken about his views on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and abortion, which are conservative positions likely to be seen by many students as attacks on the rights of women and gays and lesbians. Make the setting a small liberal arts college in a blue state and have the event be called “Is There a Cure for Campus Illiberalism” and voilà: the perfect combination of respectability, provocation, and irony for a possible headshaking news item on kids these days—if the students take the bait.
They did. Dammit.
To be clear, I’m not saying that anyone involved in planning George’s visit to Washington College in Maryland intended to generate a protest in which students entered the lecture hall, played loud music and shouted at the speaker, and brought the event to an early end. I have no evidence such a scheme was afoot. But really one couldn’t have planned it better.
George was invited to talk about “campus illiberalism” and his lecture was ended prematurely owing to interruptions and noise by protesting students, and now it is making the news (see accounts here and here).
In advance of the protest, the administration did acknowledge the controversy over George’s visit and planned alternative events for those who object to or feel attacked by his views, but, rightly in my view, did not withdraw the invitation. (Don’t get me wrong—to say I disagree with George’s views on these matters is an understatement).
During the protest, faculty and administrators asked the protestors to let George finish, but were unable to persuade the students to allow that to happen. There were security officers present, but, again rightly in my view, they did not intervene, nor did the administration ask them to intervene. (That the students ought to have let the speaker finish does not imply one ought to take coercive police measures at the time to shut down a non-violent protest preventing the speaker from finishing. I was kind of surprised to see FIRE, an organization of libertarian origins, so eager to send in the troops in this particular situation.)
What we have here is a case in which the administration did a pretty good job, even if they failed to prevent a speaker from being shouted down by the students.
It would have been better had the students been less inclined to shout down the speaker, or more susceptible to the reasoning of those who tried to convince them to voice their views after George had finished.
So perhaps we can use this event constructively. We can ask how, in our engagement with students—mainly in our teaching them in our courses—we should talk about disagreement and free speech.
Many of us teach about controversial issues over which people disagree, and many of us teach about the ethics and politics of speech. It would be good to hear both from teachers who think they have good lessons, materials, and teaching strategies on these matters, and also from teachers who find it difficult to teach about these matters.
I also don’t want to presume that all of my readers share the liberal view I express in this post, or that this view implies both that the students ought to have let George finish his lecture and that the administration ought not to have had security forcibly remove the students. Teachers need not view the situation as I do in order to share what they take to be valuable lesson plans, materials, and strategies for teaching about speech.