Disinvitations on Campus

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) recently issued a new report on disinvitations, which claims that conservatives are almost three times as likely as those on the left to encounter attempts at disinvitation of a campus speaker since 2000 based on an analysis of 192 incidents. Trying to document all the disinvitation attempts is an extremely difficult task, and FIRE deserves praise for the effort, and praise for all the important work they do fighting against censorship on campus. Unfortunately, this report relies on some flawed data and misguided assumptions, and I think the conclusions that it tries to make are off the mark.

FIRE’s report makes 5 conclusions, none of which are adequately proven and I believe most of them are incorrect.

1. The number of “disinvitation incidents”—i.e., efforts to prevent invited speakers from conveying their message on campus—has risen dramatically.

2. The number of “successful” disinvitations where a speaker ultimately does not speak as a result of a concerted effort to prevent them from doing so has increased as well.

3. Speakers are much more likely to be targeted for disinvitation for holding or expressing viewpoints perceived as conservative by faculty or students.

4. Disinvitation incidents occur with nearly equal frequency among public, private, and sectarian schools, demonstrating that disinvitations are not isolated to any particular type of university.

5. Institutions that have seen the highest number of disinvitation incidents also maintain severely speech-restrictive policies.

Let’s go through these. First, there is no evidence that attempts at disinvitation have increased dramatically in recent years. Rather, the reports that FIRE has of these attempts has increased. There is much more information available online in recent years about disinvitations, and FIRE is a much larger organization than it was in the early years, so it’s quite possible to have increased reports of disinvitations even if the actual numbers have not changed.

FIRE’s 2nd point, that “successful” disinvitations have increased as well, is largely disproven by their data. FIRE asserts, “In the first six years of the 2000s, the disinvitation success rate hovered at approximately 38%. Over the past six years, the disinvitation success rate has climbed to approximately 44%.”In reality, according to FIRE’s own figures, what happened was that the success rate was about 30% from 2000-2002, increased to around 44% in 2003-2005, and then has stayed roughly at that same level ever since. An early sample of only 20 incidents, followed by a remarkably consistent rate for 10 years, simply cannot sustain a conclusion of “increasing success” for disinvitations, particularly in light of the study’s serious data limitations in attempting to catalog unsuccessful disinvitation attempts.

Third, FIRE claims that perceived conservatives are almost three times as likely to face disinvitation attempts, and almost twice as likely to be actually disinvited. This assertion seems to be wrong due to FIRE’s limited data. FIRE’s initial press release for its report noted that out of the top ten targets for disinvitation since 2000, nine of them were conservatives and only one leftist, Bill Ayers, who tied for the bottom with three disinvitation attempts. Unfortunately, these initial numbers were incorrect.

FIRE has posted an updated list of disinvitation incidents with some important additions, included six cases involving Ward Churchill, and I also found additional disinvitation incidents for Churchill that included the University of Oregon, Iliff School of Theology, the University of Hawaii, and Hastings College (Nebraska).

I contacted Bill Ayers, who noted that the 9 disinvitation attempts against him included the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Nebraska-Lincoln, Boston College, Georgia Southern, Harvard, Wyoming, Millersville, Brandeis, and St. Mary’s (Oakland). FIRE only listed three.

I did not receive a response from Norman Finkelstein about the disinvitation attempts he has experienced, but a quick internet search found six. He was not merely disinvited but contractually banned by DePaul University from speaking on their campus, as well as disinvitation attempts at California State University at NorthridgeHarvard bookstoreHarvard Law SchoolClark University, and Georgetown.

The FIRE numbers also may have over-counted some cases. For example, the only successful disinvitation against a sitting president in the FIRE report was George W. Bush at the University of Arizona in 2004. But University of Arizona president Peter Likins noted that Bush declined his invitation to speak, and you can’t have a disinvitation without an actual accepted invitation from someone, even though there was campus protest against the idea of Bush speaking in an election year (and there’s no evidence that the protests caused the invitation to be declined).

So, by my count, the top disinvitation targets since 2000 are Ward Churchill (10), Bill Ayers (9), and Norman Finkelstein (6) tied with George W. Bush (6). That’s very different from FIRE’s initial report that 9 out of the top 10 disinvitation targets were conservatives. This obviously changes the numbers, and makes it difficult to believe FIRE’s initial estimate that conservatives are targeted almost three times as often. My own guess is that“successful” disinvitations since 2000 have occurred slightly more often against those on the left, and attempts were also more often aimed at the left.

Fourth, according to FIRE, “Disinvitation incidents occurred in remarkably even numbers among public colleges and universities (68), private secular institutions (59), and private religious institutions (65).” But wait a second: about 13.9 million students attend public colleges, 1.7 million attend religious colleges, and about 2.2 million attend private secular colleges. (In terms of the number of colleges, there are 1676 public colleges, about 900 religious colleges, and 711 private secular colleges.)

In other words, disinvitation incidents are about seven times as likely, per capita, to occur at private colleges, with religious colleges being substantially more likely to have disinvitations.

But that’s only the beginning of the story. In addition to the data problems with FIRE’s study, I also disagree with FIRE’s definition of a disinvitation attempt: “whenever segments of the campus community demand that an invited speaker not be allowed to speak (as opposed to merely expressing disagreement with, or even protesting, an invited speaker’s views or positions).” I strongly disagree with FIRE’s definition limiting this to people on campus who demand to disinvite a speaker. By FIRE’s logic, if a student writes some inane comment online calling for a speaker to be disinvited, it is a severe threat to free speech, but if a state legislature demands the disinviting of a speaker and threatens to cut funding to a college, this doesn’t meet the definition of an attempted disinvitation because someone off campus is doing it. Obviously, this is a ridiculous standard because off-campus communities often have far more influence over a university than students or faculty.

When the archbishop of San Antonio condemned St. Mary’s University in San Antonio in 2008 for allowing Hillary Clinton to speak on campus, it certainly carried more influence with a Catholic university than a few students signing an online petition. But under FIRE’s definition, if an influential religious figure, donor, or politician threatening cuts in funding demands the removal of a speaker, it does not count as a disinvitation.

The right-wing Cardinal Newman Society identified 20 “scandalous commencement speakers and honorees at Catholic colleges in 2014,” and hundreds more in past years. The Cardinal Newman Society is vastly more influential than most students and faculty on college campuses because its supporters include wealthy donors who exercise undue influence over campus administrators. The group notes that “367,000 signers joined The Cardinal Newman Society’s petition urging Notre Dame to rescind the invitation” to President Obama in 2009. That dwarfs the size of any other attempted disinvitation.

The Cardinal Newman Society was particularly upset at these 20 speakers and honorees in 2014 because the group had generally been very successful at intimidating college administrators, driving down the number of “scandalous” speakers to 6 in 2013 and making “The Vagina Monologues” the most frequently banned play in America. That’s the real danger of disinvitations, if it leads to the preemptive censorship of invitations never offered.

As Ward Churchill noted to me, “Beyond the pattern of invitations being withdrawn after they’ve been extended and accepted, there are all the invitations that are no longer extended in the first place. From 1990-2004 was speaking on campuses at least 4 times per month on overage, and turning down at least half as many invitations as I was able to accept. From the fall semester of 2005 onward, I’ve averaged a couple times per semester at best (probably less), and the majority of those have been at schools in Canada. You do the math.” The most common kind of censorship on campus is the lack of an invitation due to fear, not the disinvitation that is only the visible tip of an iceberg.

Still, even if we limit the discussion to disinvitations, if we include the massive calls for disinvitations from the Cardinal Newman Society and similar influential groups, then we are left with an inescapable conclusion: the overwhelming majority of disinvitation attempts at American colleges still come from conservatives, not leftists.

This is why, strategically, attempts at censorship by campus leftists are so stupid. Of course, disinvitations are wrong in principle, and everyone of every political stripe should oppose them. But progressives in particular should know that disinvitations inevitably will backfire. Censorship accomplishes nothing for leftists, who have everything to gain from free speech. Censorship by the left only confirms in the public mind the myth of political correctness that I wrote about two decades ago, and this FIRE study, whatever its flaws, reinforces that same message. Meanwhile, what have these protests against commencement speakers actually accomplished? Has any social injustice been rectified by this censorship? The only real effect is that future commencement speakers will be chosen with more care to avoid anyone controversial, which will almost inevitably be used to prevent progressive speakers in the future.

FIRE’s list of disinvitation attempts is an important document that should continue to be updated. But the flaws in FIRE’s data and definitions are also important to point out. We need to condemn disinvitations whether it’s right-wingers or left-wingers who are the offenders. But we also need an accurate overall picture of who the most common censors on campus are, to counter the myth that conservatives are the primary victims of censorship at American colleges and universities.

8 thoughts on “Disinvitations on Campus

  1. This is a terrific piece and many thanks to John for his careful debunking of FIRE’s claims. I assume that John has already forwarded this to FIRE and I hope they will address his critique.

    I do have one area of disagreement, however. I can’t agree that so-called “disinvitations” are “wrong in principle.” It depends on what one means by “disinvitation.” First of all, on what basis and by whom was the speaker invited? Many if not most commencement speakers are also awarded honorary degrees. The award of a degree, including an honorary one, according to AAUP principles — and often to the policy of the institution — should be the prerogative of the faculty. A number of these “disinvitations” are sparked by attempts by administrators or trustees to bypass the faculty (and sometimes the students). At Rutgers, for instance, there is a process involving a faculty committee that decides on commencement invitations. In the case of this year’s invitation to Condoleeza Rice, however, that process was, I am told, ignored. Hence the faculty was well within its rights to request a revocation of the invitation.

    Moreover, a commencement address is not an ordinary speech. For students commencement is a major rite of passage in life. It means something to them — or at least it should. If a controversial speaker is invited to campus by some on-campus group or by the university itself, students who disagree are free to boycott the speech or to picket outside it or to otherwise protest. But if the event is commencement students who feel strongly about a given speaker must choose between their conscience and their desire to attend commencement along with their families. I’m not saying that therefore there shouldn’t be any potentially controversial speakers at commencements — that would make for some deadly boring events — although involving faculty and graduates in the selection process could help legitimize even the most controversial speakers. But I do think that for a graduating student the fine distinction that John makes between a disinvitation and a disagreement or protest against a speaker’s views will not be immediately obvious or very meaningful. Indeed, I strongly suspect that FIRE too conflates legitimate protests against a speaker’s views with an effort to silence that speaker.

    In my view, those on campus, especially students, who either protest the presence of a commencement speaker or call for the institution to revoke its invitation to that speaker have every much right to speak up as do the speakers themselves. It is the responsibility of the institution, on the basis of a participatory and open process, to defend their legitimately invited speakers against any attempts to silence their speech. It is not the responsibility of protesters to keep silent.

  2. Obviously, everyone should be free to protest a speaker, even if the protest is one to demand censorship. And I agree that there is a distinction between an effort to silence ordinary speeches and one aimed at a commencement speech. The assertion that someone should never be allowed to speak on a campus is far greater than the claim that someone does not deserve an honorary degree or commencement address. But a commencement does not belong to the students or their parents; it is a university event, and it should reflect the principles of a university, including openness to controversy and protection of academic freedom. I understand the process-based complaints about a commencement speaker, and I agree with the AAUP’s stand that faculty determine honorary degrees. Nevertheless, I think that the solution for a flawed process is to fix the process in the future, not to disinvite the speaker. A disinvitation, even one based upon process, holds far too much danger that the controversial views of the speaker will be the basis of the disinvitation, and that it will send a message to the campus that certain ideas are impermissible.

    • I totally agree that commencements are university events that do not “belong” to students or their parents. That said, the best way to ensure that the event reflects the principles of a university is to make the process of inviting speakers one that is open, participatory, and considerate of the nature of the event and those attending it.

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  6. Mr. Wilson, great article about FIRE. I know they’re an advocacy group. But I wish they did more quantiative research, for their own sake and mine. To actually have numbers on these issues would be great. Thanks for putting them together.

    So I have a thought on disinviting/no platforming speakers based on their content.

    In academia we don’t allow any Joe Random to present his backyard “theory on energy”. They have to meet some academic standard to be worthy of an academic platform. So we *already* effectively no platform a lot of people by default.

    But given that that’s true, wouldn’t there be certain individual speakers that don’t deserve an invite and/or don’t deserve an academic platform?

    I agree, that in general it can look bad to the public when someone is disinvited. But it’s also bad to allow that public opinion to always force you to give possibly *any* speaker a platform.

    • Speakers on campus don’t have to meet an academic standards. That’s because students and others can invite speakers to appear on campus, regardless of academic qualifications. Disinvitations are always suspect because there are no academic standards for speakers, and should be none.

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