BY JOHN K. WILSON
In a few minutes, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski will be speaking at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics (IOP).
A group of student organizations wrote to the University of Chicago calling for Lewandowski to be banned from campus. I think they are deeply misguided. They argue, “Nothing about a firm commitment to free expression obliges us open our doors to (much less to provide platforms for) those who incite hatred and violence against refugees, immigrants and minorities — that is, against our students, teachers, co-workers and neighbors.”
That’s incorrect. A firm commitment to free expression does, in fact, oblige us to provide platforms for hateful people. And even a weak commitment to free expression obliges a university not to ban hateful speakers when they have been invited. If you declare a principle that people who incite “hatred” against others should be banned from speaking, where will that lead you? Should critics of Israel be banned for expressing hatred of the Israeli government and its supporters? Should atheists be banned for expressing hatred of religion? Should I be banned for writing an entire book expressing hatred for Donald Trump and the gullible idiots who supported him, which includes many of your co-workers and neighbors that you think must be protected from hateful ideas?
The letter also argues, “By hosting figures like Spicer and Lewandowski, the Institute of Politics suggests that the ideas and ideologies they represent are debatable positions within the range of normal politics. Indeed, holding these events as closed-door collegial ‘conversations’ suggests that such positions are not only debatable, but legitimate and respectable. They are none of those things.”
Of course, Trump’s ideas in fact are debatable positions within the range of normal politics (that’s why he’s president). And a university should be open to ideas far beyond the range of normal politics (in fact, I wish that the IOP had more extreme speakers on the far left and the far right, rather than the centrist journalists and campaign experts that it prefers). Does anyone think that Black Lives Matter speakers (who have also appeared at IOP) are within the range of “normal politics” or should be banned if they’re not? The fact that Lewandowski’s event is a “conversation” rather than a straightforward speech doesn’t make it more “legitimate and respectable,” since it provides more opportunity for critical questioning.
Anton Ford, an assistant philosophy professor who helped write the letter, told the Chicago Tribune, “This is not about hurt feelings. This is not about people being offended. It’s about real violence against people. Sometimes there are people or views that are dangerous in and of themselves. The very ceremony of debating that is problematic. What is troubling about the general way this is talked about is that it is as if nothing is out of bounds.”
Yes, some ideas are dangerous. But that doesn’t mean that they should be banned. First of all, banning Lewandowski from campus doesn’t make bad ideas disappear. Second, who do you trust to decide which ideas are dangerous? Only the ideas that offend someone in power get banned for being dangerous. That’s why no ideas should be out of bounds in the sense of being banned by a university. Debating bad ideas doesn’t normalize them; it confronts and undermines them.
Of course, people are perfectly free to protest Lewandowski and the event, but when they demand censorship, they are wrong.
On one point, I do agree with critics of the IOP. The University of Chicago will be suppressing one kind of speech at this event, by requiring it to be “off the record.” Off the record means you cannot repeat or even summarize anything said by the speaker at the event. Normally, “off the record” is an agreement between a journalist and a source about a very limited discussion. Applying it to an entire event, and to the entire audience (which may not even understand the concept) is a very bad idea.
A Chicago Maroon editorial sharply criticizes the practice. This practice is an abuse of what “off the record” is—a personal decision by a reporter to agree with a source not to report on a selected part of a conversation based on a negotiation—and imposes it on an entire audience. No reporter would ever agree to go “off the record” for an entire conversation that is their only interaction with a source.
In my view, the University of Chicago rules do not actually allow for programs to restrict student speech about events by declaring them “off the record.” There is certainly no way to punish students who violate the “off the record” request, or to ban them from future events. And so I don’t think IOP should mislead speakers by promising an off-the-record event that can’t actually be that.
Judging by the large number of “off the record” events at IOP, it’s clear that IOP openly offers this as an option to speakers, rather than utilizing it at the express demand of speakers, and only when attempts to persuade them otherwise fail. “Off the record” is bad for journalism, and it’s worse at a university. However, the “off the record” status is not special to Lewandowski’s event.
Censorship is a bad idea. It’s bad for public relations (contributing to the myth of political correctness that helped Trump win the presidency). It’s bad for education, because it deprives us of the need to argue with opposing ideas. And it’s bad for academic freedom, because it puts the administration in charge of deciding what ideas should be banned on campus as “dangerous.”