Posted December 15, 2015
By KATHERINE MOORE
Just add Williams College to the list of academic institutions where guest speakers have been dis-invited.
One of the most recent dis-invitation incidents occurred in October at Williams College. Students invited Suzanne Venker, a conservative author and critic of feminism. Venker was to speak at the college’s “Uncomfortable Learning” event on the topic, “One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back: Why Feminism Fails.”
The group withdrew Venker’s invitation several days prior to the event because of the vast amount of student protesters who opposed her views.
Although her speech is legally protected, the Williams College code on acceptable discourse includes not allowing speech that challenges fundamental human rights.
While the number of speaker dis-invitations is most noticeable around commencement season, they occur all year round.
University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors and Boston civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate founded FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999. FIRE’s mission is to defend students’ rights and liberty at American colleges and university’s. According to FIRE, during the past six years, the dis-invitation success rate has climbed to approximately 44 percent.
Speaker dis-invitations occur when students and faculty demand that an invited guest speaker gets dis-invited because they oppose something the speaker has done or believes. There are several methods of dis-invitations: formal dis-invitations, withdrawals by the speaker and when the speaker’s ability to speak is prevented due to students or faculty disrupting the event.
The university that has faced the most dis-invitation incidents is Harvard, with a total of six, FIRE stated. Other institutions topping the list include: Columbia University, George Washington University, Boston College, Georgetown University and the University of California.
The University of Miami is not on FIRE’s list of dis-invitations.
Margot Winick, assistant vice president for University of Miami’s Communications and Public Relations, agreed.
“I have been at the University for 15 years, and, not to my knowledge, has the University of Miami dis-invited a speaker,” she said.
The private university in Coral Gables has “no formal process by which a group of students could dis-invite a speaker invited by a university department or student organization,” Joshua R. Brandfon, director of Student Activities and Student Organizations, said.
Brandfon explained that the school only asks students and faculty to register their speaker so they can provide necessary security as deemed by the University of Miami Police Department to ensure the safety of the speaker and attendees.
The University of Miami’s guidelines give students and faculty the right to express themselves freely with certain obligations. These codes are in their Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook for 2015 through 2016. Under the Outside Speaker Policy, the university is “committed to providing a forum for free and open expression of divergent points of view by campus speakers.”
The mission and values of the university come through policies like the Harassment or Harm to Others code, which prohibit words or acts that hurt another student, faculty or staff’s regular activity. These policies provided in the handbook minimize the university’s dis-invitation rate as it assures the right of students and faculty to proclaim their views.
Other universities, like UM, have adopted policies that FIRE believes violate the First Amendment.
And this ultimately causes the debate whether hosting controversial speakers is more useful than censoring them.
The opposing view is that students should be able to dis-invite speakers.
It is believed that their university is meant to be a safe place and is like a second home where students can hide from beliefs that cause distress. However, the dis-invitations can cause narrow mindedness as students only listen to safe and inoffensive speakers.
The other attitude is that people must seek the person with whom they disagree.
“As the Republican Law Students Association, we are probably one of the more controversial groups on campus but I haven’t had any pushback from the administration on any speakers,” Frank Carrasco, the group’s president, stated.
He continued, “In the event that we did have an issue with a speaker being dis-invited, I would not dis-invite the speaker. The voices that most need to be heard are the voices that those in power try to suppress.”
Although the University of Miami controls speech guidelines, recently the national president of the Log Cabin Republicans, an LGBT Republican group, spoke at the university and there were no protests or push back from administration.
Amid controversy, universities must decide the importance of free speech on campus and whether speaker dis-invitations should be the final result.