Webinar Archive: Disinvited Speakers and Academic Freedom

The same day that the U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called for “a national recommitment to free speech on campus” before an audience at Georgetown University, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, SAGE Publishing, and Index on Censorship magazine hosted a webinar on “Disinvited Speakers and Academic Freedom.”

Over the past few years, the news has been filled with stories about how authors, thought-leaders, and others have become disinvited or pressured to withdraw from university speaking engagements because they or their cause don’t reflect the prevailing ideology.

The webinar, held during Banned Books Week, asked what are the consequences of disallowing diverse viewpoints on campus and what can speakers, faculty, and librarians do to support intellectual freedom in academia. The panel included Mark Osler, a law professor focused on sentencing and narcotics policy who was disinvited from a campus speaking engagement; Glenn Geher, a psychology professor of who helped to bring a controversial speaker to campus; and Judith C. Russell, dean of libraries for the University of Florida. Jemimah Steinfeld from Index on Censorship served as moderator.

Since the guests were not able to answer all the audience questions during the hour-long webinar, they agreed to answer some of the additional queries in written responses that appear below the recorded webinar.

I have observed that often people who claim to be all about equality, tolerance, freedom of speech, etc., are quick to change their tune when they apply these concepts to those they dislike or disagree with — and they think that’s different because they are “right.”

Mark Osler: You are right in noting this dynamic. Most of us (including me) have succumbed to that way of thinking at some point. One way to push past that instinct (and we all have it) is to realize that people who disagree with us also bring with them an audience who might disagree with us, too. And that is a great opportunity—you have a chance to change people’s minds.

Glenn Geher: Good point – a truly fair approach to freedom of expression sees such freedom allocated equally across ideologies (to the extent that expressed ideologies do not lead to violent and/or truly hurtful outcomes).

Jemimah Steinfeld: Today the attacks on free speech happen across the spectrum, as journalism from around the globe highlights. It would be overly simplistic to say they come from just one side. This means it’s increasingly important for everyone to protect the right to free speech and protecting this right has to be extended to those you disagree with as much as those whose thoughts and values chime with your own.

What do you think of the conflation of free speech with white/western supremacy? It is becoming increasingly difficult to defend and promote free expression since the left has been equating free expression with racist attitudes. Being accused of racism on campus today equates with being labeled a witch in 17th century Salem.

Glenn Geher: This scares the heck out of me, to be honest. Free speech has been, politically, co-opted by many folks in the fringe far right. This is nonsense and we, the people of our great nation, need to take back the First Amendment as a set of freedoms that belong to us all and that set the stage for how our democracy operates.

Wasn’t the danger surrounding Milo Yiannopoulos’s speaking event caused by the audience’s reaction to him?  How do you suggest we avoid the “heckler’s veto”?

Glenn Geher: Yes, but at the end of the day, in context, this almost doesn’t matter. If we know that his presence is going to create that kind of situation, we need to protect people – we need to keep people safe first and foremost. You are right that it is kind of unfair that this situation is a by-product of someone like Milo – but, the fact is, that it is a by-product – a legitimate one with safety-related consequences.

How do you define “hate speech?”

 Glenn Geher: I see it as speech that has the clear capacity to dehumanize others based on the group they’re in or some other uncontrollable facet of their identity. I also see it as having the capacity to lead to violence due to its inherently cruel nature.

Because of the political environment, we have seen social justice and general politics issues taught in classrooms that haven’t traditionally involved these areas, like English or mathematics.

Glenn Geher: Yes, social justice has become a dominant goal within the academy – often at a cost to the advancement of knowledge. And yes, this is a major problem and it has direct implications for freedom of expression.

How do you encourage students to engage in civil discourse with people who hate who they are?

Glenn Geher: Yes, this is a tough one for sure. A slightly softened version of this question pertains to teaching students how to engage in dialog with others who do not share their views or opinions – and this is something that we have to model in college and that we have to cultivate – because at the end of the day, life is full of these kind of situations.

What are your thoughts related to the recent controversy regarding the NFL and Trump? How does this situation affect academic freedom and freedom of speech?

Glenn Geher: My two cents: Expressing First Amendment rights is expressing a love of the values of our nation. The right to criticize the government is foundational in our society.

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SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space, is a leading international publisher of journals, books, and electronic media for academic, educational, and professional markets. An independent company, SAGE has principal offices in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Melbourne and Washington DC.

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