BY HANK REICHMAN
Last week I posted a piece about the decision by Williams College President Adam Falk to cancel a speech by John Derbyshire, a controversial conservative. Then yesterday William Covino, President of California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), announced that he would cancel a talk by Ben Shapiro, editor-at-large of the notorious Breitbart News, who had been invited by a conservative student group, the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), to speak today on “When Diversity Becomes a Problem.” The decision came after the student group wrote a letter challenging the university’s intention to charge them $621.50 for security costs because of Shapiro’s controversial positions and growing protest against him by students and some faculty.
In an email to the campus yesterday Covino wrote:
After careful consideration, I have decided that it will be best for our campus community if we reschedule Ben Shapiro’s appearance for a later date, so that we can arrange for him to appear as part of a group of speakers with differing viewpoints on diversity. Such an event will better represent our university’s dedication to the free exchange of ideas and the value of considering multiple viewpoints. We will be happy to work with Mr. Shapiro to schedule the more inclusive event that I have in mind. I have informed the university staff involved in facilitating the February 25 event that it will be rescheduled and reconfigured for a later date.
Today, however, Covino backed down, agreeing to allow Shapiro to speak at 5 p.m. today as planned. Shapiro had vowed to show up anyway and legal scholars (for instance, Eugene Volkh of UCLA in his Washington Post blog) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) had warned that the cancellation was blatantly illegal. The university had recently hosted several liberal speakers, such as Cornel West and Angela Davis, with no requirement that their events include opposing views and apparently without charging the sponsors a security fee. As a private institution Williams College has a legal — but in my view not a moral — right to cancel a controversial speaker, but as a public institution CSULA is covered by the First Amendment and cannot legally discriminate by viewpoint. As a long-time faculty member in the CSU, I suspect that Covino had been warned after his precipitous announcement by CSU attorneys that he stood on shaky (at best) legal ground.
It was unclear whether CSULA had also backed down on its equally illegal request for a security fee, but I certainly hope they have. Last year, Western Michigan University settled a First Amendment lawsuit alleging security fees charged to student organizers amount to a tax on controversial speech. The university agreed to revise its policies and pay $35,000 in damages and legal fees.
Another difference between the Williams case and that at CSULA is that while Williams simply barred the controversial speaker, Covino offered initially to permit Shapiro to speak “as part of a group of speakers with differing viewpoints.” But this too is a violation not only of the First Amendment but of the principles of academic freedom. The AAUP has previously opposed such requirements. “Campus groups should not be compelled to invite someone they do not want to hear as a condition for inviting someone they do want to hear,” declares 2005 letter from from AAUP about outside speakers and academic freedom. “It would be improper for a university administration to require the College Republicans to invite Barack Obama in order to ‘balance’ Dick Cheney …. A different student group can invite Obama, or the university can create its own event and add it to the campus schedule.”
According to a report in Inside Higher Ed,
Jose Castaneda, a student at Cal State who organized a rally against Shapiro’s planned visit, said they (Castaneda’s preferred pronoun) think the university made the right move. “Ben Shapiro’s rhetoric directly attacks black and African-American, LGBTQ, and other marginalized communities,” Castaneda said in an email. “Shapiro is using his college tour as an excuse to continue the same hateful rhetoric we have seen throughout U.S. history.”
“I believe the university administration handled this event well,” Castaneda said. After setting up the event page, they said, university staff reached out “tactfully and consistently,” and Castaneda suggested that a forum featuring multiple perspectives might make more sense. “Cal State LA’s administration is truly promoting intellectual and ideological diversity by rescheduling the event and changing the format to a forum. It does not impact Shapiro’s freedom of speech in any way. I would hope other universities follow suit.”
“It is a mistake,” Castaneda said, “to allow for incredibly misguided speakers to divide college campuses with polarized views. Now more than ever, we must think critically about how information becomes biased when it is used for political purposes. Universities must not become an engine for the cultural production of ignorance. Instead, they should remain the sites for inclusive dialogues and intellectual growth.”
But it is Castaneda who is mistaken. I too think Shapiro’s ideas are repulsive and divisive. But the answer is not to bar his speech or even to compel him to debate his opponents. Castaneda is, of course, free to invite speakers of his persuasion and I certainly hope that happens. But even more important students should recognize that by turning to the administration in the hope that it will silence or otherwise “restrict” repugnant speech they defeat their own cause. Contrary to the contentions of the YAF, the administration’s interest is not in advancing a “liberal agenda,” but in ensuring complacency and forestalling potentially disruptive controversy, no matter the source. Frankly, I doubt they care any more about meaningful diversity than they do about free speech.
I love that Castaneda and others were organizing a demonstration and I hope that they still demonstrate outside Shapiro’s speech today. In fact, to cancel the speech would really be to cancel the demonstration and hence to limit an opportunity for students to organize and act. Knowing the CSULA campus, I don’t imagine Shapiro will find many receptive ears. And hopefully his speech will encourage others to speak out against his ideas. No doubt the counter-protest (see announcement left) may attract more attendees than the speech. I for one hope so, but both events need to go on. That is what free speech is about.