Calling Michael Moore and Ann Coulter

AAUP issues draft policy questioning colleges that discourage visits from controversial political speakers.
April 27, 2006

During the 2004 campaign, Michael Moore visited some 20 college campuses as part of his Slacker Uprising Tour, designed to get students to register to vote and to defeat President Bush's re-election bid.

Moore was successful with the former, not the latter -- but he didn't make it to every campus he wanted to visit. Some -- like California State University San Marcos and George Mason University -- disinvited him, saying a visit would be inappropriate so close to the election. Other colleges let Moore speak, but required a visit from someone as outspoken from the right as Moore is from the left. And of course during the election and after, speakers from a range of political views -- Ann Coulter being a prime example from the right -- have drawn protests and complaints at the campuses that have invited them.

Since the 2004 election, the American Association of University Professors has been reviewing the issue of controversial political speakers and it has now published a proposed statement reiterating the importance of inviting such people to campuses -- and rejecting the idea that speakers must be balanced, person by person, as invitations go out.

The new AAUP statement rejects two arguments commonly given for disinviting Moore last election cycle and some controversial figures generally: that they lack balance or that their presence on campus could endanger an institution's tax-exempt status.

Of the balance argument, the AAUP statement says that "this objection misunderstands the meaning of balance within a university setting." In the classroom, the statement says, "balance refers to the obligation of instructors to convey to students the state of knowledge," but not to give all sides equal time. "There is no obligation to present ideas about intelligent design in a biology course, for example, because those ideas have no standing in the professional community of biologists," it says.

As for speakers outside the classroom, the statement notes that many such invitations come from student groups seeking to promote certain views and that, as a result, "a mechanical standard of balance" would not "reflect educational objectives." The statement continues: "So long as the range of a university's extracurricular programming is educationally justifiable, the specific invitations of particular groups should not be vetoed by university administrators because these invitations are said to lack balance. Campus groups should not be prevented from pursuing the very interests that they have been created to explore."

As for the tax-exempt issue, the AAUP cited several Internal Revenue Service rulings that accepted that universities, by inviting speakers and having students who engaged in political activity, did not endanger the institutions' tax status. The statement expresses concern that colleges are making "overly restrictive" interpretations of tax law to exclude speakers like Moore.

While the AAUP statement specifically mentions the disinvitations to Moore, it also notes the AAUP's concern over access to campus forums for conservative speakers, citing the group's statement in 1983 when Jeane Kirkpatrick, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was heckled at several campus visits.

Mary Heen, a law professor at the University of Richmond who was on the subcommittee that wrote the AAUP statement, said that she believed there were easy ways for colleges to deal with any concerns about implying that they were endorsing the views of particular campus speakers. Posters promoting an event might note, for example, that a speaker's views did not reflect the institution's views. "Being disinvited is too strong a reaction" to worries about an institution's reputation, when such options as disclaimers exist, Heen said.

Some critics of various campus speakers are unlikely to be swayed by the AAUP. David T. Hardy, a lawyer in Arizona, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission in late 2004 over Moore's campus visits. (A spokesman for the FEC said that there was no record of a ruling on the complaint and that the agency could not comment on the status of investigations that are not complete.)

Hardy -- co-author of Michael Moore Is a Big Fat Stupid White Man -- said he believed colleges spent more than $1 million on Moore's campus visits and that as a result, they were helping the Kerry campaign. "How is that different from anyone else spending money on a campaign?" he asked.

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said he agreed that campuses should (and do) invite a range of speakers, some of them controversial, to campuses. While he said that was a good thing, he also said that "inviting controversial speakers always carries risks -- there's no way around it."

Of colleges where officials have said that they worry about the implications of inviting a figure just before an election, Hartle said: "I would assume any president making a legal argument is doing that on the basis of legal counsel, and you have to respect that."

Robert Post, a Yale University law professor who was on the panel that wrote the AAUP statement, said Hartle was correct about risk. But Post said that the association hoped to change the way colleges looked at that risk, which he said was overstated.

Post said that he previously worked as a lawyer for newspapers on libel issues and that in that role, there is a temptation to discourage newspapers from publishing anything that could get a publication "into trouble." But if you go far down that road, Post said, "you disable a newspaper from doing what it has to do."

A university can't ignore risks, he said, but the AAUP wants more of an emphasis on the values of an open campus. "You can be so cautious that you can disable a university from doing what it needs to do," he said.


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