Debating Speech -- at Hamilton and Whitewater

When Ward Churchill's scheduled appearance at Hamilton College this month was called off because of threats of violence, the debate about his appearance didn't go away. In formal forums and informal discussions, online and in person, students and faculty members have continued to talk.

February 11, 2005

When Ward Churchill's scheduled appearance at Hamilton College this month was called off because of threats of violence, the debate about his appearance didn't go away. In formal forums and informal discussions, online and in person, students and faculty members have continued to talk.

And when Hamilton's president, Joan Hinde Stewart, posted a new statement on the college's Web site Wednesday, it was read with interest and analyzed with care -- on the campus and off. Stewart has won widespread praise at Hamilton for defending the right of Churchill to speak, and for canceling his talk only because of the threats, not because of the uproar.

Stewart was unavailable to discuss her new statement Thursday. Some saw it as an affirmation of both academic freedom and the need to promote intellectual rigor in campus activities. Others worry that the college may be sending a message that controversial speakers are not welcome -- even though Stewart specifically wrote otherwise.

In her statement, she said, "We must have speakers who are thought-provoking and not merely provocative, who challenge us intellectually as opposed to being merely outrageous." She also announced tighter controls on the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society, and Culture, the campus unit that invited Churchill and that has been involved in previous controversies. She wrote that it was important for the college to be "prudent, especially in the near future."

Stewart wrote that she has "informed the project's leaders that allocations from their budget for the remainder of the year require the signature of the dean."

So what does this all mean?

Some see it as common sense. Theodore Eismeier, a professor of government who has questioned why Ward Churchill was ever invited, said he strongly supported Stewart's statement that speakers should be more than "outrageous," adding "Ward Churchill clearly did not meet that standard."

But he suggested that she has not gone far enough. "I disagree with President Stewart's contention that academic freedom for Hamilton faculty members implies by extension that the college should exercise "virtually no supervision of the decisions of a faculty member about whom to invite to campus with college funds."

Roger Bowen, the general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said Stewart was "in a difficult position" because "she needs to reaffirm the college's commitment to academic freedom while demonstrating to parents and external groups that she is taking action to prevent" more Churchill-like controversies.

But Bowen said he was concerned about the idea that Hamilton is conducting a study of the Kirkland Project and restricting its spending after it invited a controversial speaker to campus. "If the Kirkland Project's mission is to invite thinkers with controversial views, then President Stewart's actions suggest that the 'marketplace of ideas' will be all the poorer."

David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said he was torn on whether Stewart's statements were positive or not. While FIRE is known for defending unpopular speech, he said, "No university has to bring someone as intellectually bankrupt as Ward Churchill to speak."

For French, the question comes down to why the college is now thinking about whom it invites to address students. It would be "problematic" if the response were because of the offense caused by Churchill's statements on 9/11. "But if the university is saying, 'We want to bring people of the highest scholarly stature,' then that's fine," French said.

Similarly, he said that the Hamilton president's actions about the Kirkland Project could be read two ways. Noting the criticism of Churchill's writings having nothing to do with 9/11, French said, "It seems widely apparent that on scholarship grounds alone, there would be a loss of confidence in the project" that invited him.

But, he added, "If the issue is we are putting you under scrutiny because you have caused controversy, that's bad. If it's related to viewpoint, that's chilling."

Nancy Rabinowitz, director of the Kirkland Project and a professor of comparative literature at Hamilton, said last night that she was "not surprised" that the college is paying closer attention to her program, "given the media storm."

But she said that it did send a message. "There's no doubt that it does seem that people who bring the controversy are subject to heightened scrutiny," she said.

Rabinowitz said she worries about the impact that this controversy will have. But she stands by the original invitation, noting that Churchill had a well established record of speaking on Native American issues in a way that engages undergraduates.

"I think he was a very good choice for what we invited him to do," she said.

She noted that while the national media debate has been "personally painful," she has been thrilled to see Hamilton students in so many serious, reasoned discussions on all sides of the issues involved. "The campus is so much more alive," she said.

Asked if she had advice for those seeking to bring controversial speakers to campuses, she said, "Go for it."

The University of Wisconsin at Whitewater is taking her advice. Churchill is scheduled to speak there March 1. The invitation was extended prior to the recent controversy and the chancellor at Whitewater, Jack Miller, announced Thursday that he would let the speech go on.

In his statement, Miller said that he was siding with First Amendment concerns, but he said that they were not the only issues involved. And he said that the speech could only go on under certain stipulations, including the ability to assure safety, a ban on the use of state funds, and Churchill's replying to a letter the chancellor sent him outlining his views on the Colorado professor's 9/11 comments.

Said Miller: "I side with the First Amendment principles, and with my faith in our faculty, staff, students, and community members as to whether to listen to Mr. Churchill and how to judge his comments. I say this knowing we are under no obligation to extend him an invitation, and while holding the personal feeling that his comments on 9/11 victims were despicable."


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