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It’s Alright to Demand the Disinvitation of Speakers

By Randall L. Kennedy, Contributing Opinion Writer
Randall L. Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School. His column runs bi-weekly on Thursdays.

The scenario is familiar: A university invites a speaker to campus that outrages some sector of the community. Perhaps the guest is Ann Coulter, Angela Davis, or Mohammed El-Kurd. Angered or disappointed, protestors demand that the invitation be withdrawn.

Many free speech advocates categorically denounce campaigns to disinvite speakers, pointing to such protests as evidence of moral and intellectual rot. They decry even more harshly authorities that rescind invitations, portraying them as shameful cowards.

It’s important that universities host a diversity of perspectives. But, as a strong supporter of free speech myself, I have to say: The reflexive, absolutist scorn for these campaigns ought to be reconsidered.

First, why is the decision to invite a speaker beyond objection or recall? Speakers are often selected in hidden deliberations by a small committee of gatekeepers. Perhaps the committee was intolerably corrupt, stupid, or myopic. If protestors genuinely believe that selectors have erred badly in issuing a speaking invitation, they should be able to seek to undo it without incurring automatic condemnation.

It is the prerogative of the institution to make judgements about the quality of speakers invited to campus. Universities need not carry through with a promised invitation that was egregiously misconceived at the outset or that has become unduly burdensome because of some supervening development.

Second, campaigning for a disinvitation consists of something that free speech advocates typically champion — namely, more speech. True, protestors may be urging the university to deplatform the speaker. But, contrary to what some free speech advocates would have you believe, that doesn’t make these protests “censorship.” Speakers are not prevented from speaking; they are simply divested of the prestige and other rewards that would accompany an address under the aegis of the sponsoring institution.

These demonstrations, referred to as “preemptive protests” by professor Gregory P. Magarian at Washington University School of Law, do not violate anyone’s rights. They simply air a conflict between competing positions. If the protestors succeed, they have not imposed censorship, but have simply prevailed in an argument over the allocation of scarce institutional resources.

If protestors lose a given fight and the invitation stands, they should not silence the speaker at the event itself. To do that would be to censor. But again: Those urging disinvitation are doing something different. They are raising their voices to make their objections known in the hope of prompting authorities to retract an invitation that has been, in their view, improperly extended.

To be sure, there are typically good reasons to oppose disinvitations. An appropriate commitment to freedom of thought will virtually require a university to offer platforms periodically to speakers that some will find objectionable. And collegiality requires broad deference to those who, presumably working in good faith, are attempting to enrich the university environment.

A disinvitation will contribute to the appearance, maybe reinforcing the reality, that a campus is gripped by ideological constrictions that truncate needed discussion. Furthermore, a disinvitation entails breaching a promise to the speaker and perhaps embarrassing someone who may not have sought out the notoriety that will now taint them.

Those seeking to disinvite a speaker should thus bear a heavy burden of persuasion. Recissions ought to be avoided. There are, after all, other ways to register disapproval — for example, private complaint, public boycott, open protest (as in a walkout), or the creation of an alternative forum. But there is nothing categorically wrong with protestors putting pressure on university officials to change their minds.

Exerting pressure is what effective speech often entails. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Academic Freedom Alliance and other such organizations apply pressure all the time through open letters, petitions, threats of litigation, publicity, and other means. These organizations are not bullies — they are engaged in the rough struggle to shape public opinion, as are those engaged in disinvitation campaigns.

Speaker disinvitations may often be objectionable. But students have every right to pursue them.

Randall L. Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School. His column runs bi-weekly on Thursdays.

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