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Protesting Speakers at Universities

This piece mentions the various people who will not be speaking at university graduations and other events due to protests from leftist groups. As the article suggests, the people being protested have views that range from the right to the left:

Such reversals, whether initiated by the school or the speaker, were once rare, but have become more common in the last few years.

Campus activists on the left have long objected to appearances by more conservative figures like Ms. Rice, though usually the events proceeded despite the protests. What is far more unusual is to see them block appearances by figures like Ms. Lagarde, a trailblazing woman usually seen as a centrist, who faced criticism over I.M.F. policies toward poor nations that predated her tenure; or Mr. Birgeneau, who was known for liberal policies toward students who were gay or not authorized to be in the country.

In some cases, the invitation is withdrawn. In these cases, the best result would be for university officials to take a stand by issuing statements in support of the core notion of a university. They should say: “We understand that not everyone supports the beliefs or actions of the invited speaker. That is not surprising. In a free society, people often disagree. It is part of the mission of a university to have speakers from different perspectives. It is one of the rights of students and others in the university to disagree with these speakers and to develop the skill of listening to those with whom they disagree.”

In other cases, however, the speaker withdraws because of the protests. Apparently, the speaker would like to be treated by the university as a whole with respect and even as an honored guest. The speaker does not want his reputation sullied by the protestors or to have to deal with criticism and acrimony. This is understandable in many cases.

What to do about these latter cases is more difficult. I believe that the protestors have a right to peacefully protest a speaker. But, in many cases, the protestors have been allowed to use force and other inappropriate behavior to stop speakers. This should also be prevented by universities. If the speakers fear these types of inappropriate protests, then proper university action to prevent it would help induce the speakers to visit despite the possibility of a protest.

But it is quite possible that speakers simply don’t want to be protested, even if the protests were peaceful. That would mean that the protestors have power and can use it.

It is not clear how to address this. If one sees these protests as the left attacking the right, then one possible solution would involve the other side – people on the right and moderates – to protest leftist speakers. That might then lead over time to a situation where protests were seen as problematic, and some sort of fair rules might emerge. Of course, it might instead– at least for a while – just lead to more protesting.

But the article suggests that many of these protests are attacking centrist or leftwing speakers. If that is how one views these protests, then this might be something of a civil war on the left (reminding one of how the New Left attacked the liberal establishment in the 60s).

For the present, at least, it seems that we should just get used to speakers being protested and withdrawing. Because now that the protestors see themselves as having power, we are likely to see more protests. It is true that there may be a backlash against the protestors, but it may take more than that to stop the protests.