Communicating About David Horowitz

Does the fact that he won't be speaking at a scholarly meeting reflect common sense or political correctness? Professors consider questions of fairness, civility and when it's appropriate to be unruly.
February 19, 2008

David Horowitz will not be appearing at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association, which is expected to draw thousands of professors to San Diego in November. On that fact, everyone is in agreement. But whether he isn't participating because he was making unreasonable demands, because he was never invited in the first place, because the association gave in to members who didn't want to give him a forum, or some combination of factors is the subject of much disagreement.

Further, the fact that the association almost had a debate between Horowitz and Michael Bérubé -- and now plans to have the debate, but subbing in Anne Neal for Horowitz -- has prompted a dispute about to whom a scholarly group should provide a platform.

Some association members say that Horowitz has been so uncivil to academics that he should not be treated as just another person with an opinion, but as someone engaged in an active campaign against professors -- and, as such, any appearance would have been one to be met with protests, including possible disruptions (although not any that would endanger Horowitz or anyone else). Some of these members don't like the idea of Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, appearing either, seeing her as only a more polite version of Horowitz. Others, however, say that it is appropriate for the association to sponsor controversial discussions and that the flirtation with inviting Horowitz and the invitation to Neal are entirely in keeping with the ideals of academic freedom.

Horowitz was approached about agreeing to debate Bérubé by the NCA-Forum, a group within the larger association that organizes some events at the annual meeting. There were exchanges of e-mail messages about Horowitz's honorarium and various other requests he made. (In the e-mails, Horowitz agreed to waive his $7,000 honorarium provided the association would provide $500 for a bodyguard, and he also said that he wanted to speak after Bérubé because he believes Bérubé has lied about him in the past. In e-mail messages about the event, Horowitz was specifically told that any protests would not be disruptive because "free speech is a core principle of NCA."

As word leaked internally that the association was considering this invitation (and paying money to Horowitz), some members balked -- both at the idea of paying him, and at the idea that protests could not attempt to disrupt him. Some scholars suggested that their colleagues needed to be careful about any protests that might play into Horowitz's hands, given that he likes to portray the academy as unwilling to listen to him.

Dana L. Cloud, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin, was among those who participated in online discussions about the potential invitation, and she posted some of these conversations on her blog, Dangerous and Loud. Cloud said that she was bothered by the idea of paying Horowitz anything, writing of Horowitz: "If he wants to engage in witch-hunting, he can do it on his own dime." She also wrote that if the association went ahead with the invitation, she would organize a registration boycott and possible protests.

Cloud also questioned the idea that Horowitz deserved an uninterrupted audience at the meeting. "On the question of confronting him, I respectfully suggest that his sort of cynical, opportunistic claiming of the 'academic freedom' mantle does not deserve a decorous reception. I would prefer to challenge him as a participant on the dais, but also see reason in actually standing up to him in the form of a protest. I don’t think that doing so is 'incredibly stupid,' since such challenges, successfully undertaken here at U.T., are what have kept him away from Texas in his latest round of campus events against what he calls (cynically protesting Women’s and Gender Studies in the name of liberating women) 'islamofascism,' " she wrote. (At Texas, Cloud supported a group of people who interrupted Horowitz with heckling and horns at an appearance, although she said her involvement was limited to holding a sign at the protest.)

She added: "The appeal to decorum is actually part of Horowitz’s and the right’s deliberate strategy to get us not to fight back for fear of seeming rude, immature, childish, or undemocratic. It is amazing to me how they get away with it, even among my liberal friends, when it is plain to see that his organizations meet mere noise with the coercive power of the police. Engaging in unruly protest does not play into their hands. By caving into the right’s alleged logic of non-confrontation, we actually give ground to their actually censorious motives and to a limited definition of protest that has, frankly, been an impediment to the rebuilding of a powerful and vocal left."

In an interview, Cloud stressed that her comments about disruptions applied only to noise or other non-violent means, and that she would never support physical attacks or threats against Horowitz or his supporters.

She said, however, that her experience shows that Horowitz does real damage to professors' lives -- and that he needs to be viewed that way, not just as a political opponent. Cloud is among the those named in Horowitz's The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. Cloud said that she is "safe" in that she has supportive colleagues. And others -- such as the Web site Free Exchange on Campus -- have come forward to question Horowitz's portrayal of her work.

But Cloud said that in other ways, Horowitz's attacks have been significant. People who read the book or his Web site regularly send letters to university officials asking for her to be fired. Personally, she has received -- mostly via e-mail -- "physical threats, threats of removing my daughter from my custody, threats of sexual assaults, horrible disgusting gendered things," she said. That Horowitz doesn't send these isn't the point, she said. "He builds a climate and culture that emboldens people," and as a result, shouldn't be seen as a defender of academic freedom, but as its enemy.

The early e-mails to Horowitz from the National Communication Association, which he released, sound like an invitation, talking about what organizers "envision" and urging Horowitz to think of the opportunity to address the professors. Subsequent e-mails, however, noted that the discussions would be going to a committee for review.

But J. Michael Hogan, who handled the e-mails and who is co-director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Pennsylvania State University, stressed in an interview Monday that no formal invitation was extended. But on Monday, he e-mailed Horowitz that whatever had been on the table was no longer on the table.

"With personal regret, I write to inform you that the NCA-Forum planning group has voted not to go forward with my proposal for a debate between you and Michael Bérubé at next fall's NCA convention. Opponents of the idea cited a number of reasons, including concerns that some of our own organization's members would engage in disruptive protests, objections to your requests for changes in the format and payment for a bodyguard, and concerns that personal animosities between you and Bérubé might distract from the substantive issues, resulting in an exchange of personal insults and accusations rather than a debate focused on the important issues you have raised in your campaign. Again, I initially proposed this event, so please believe me when I say that I'm personally disappointed in this outcome. But I do appreciate your willingness to consider the proposal, and I hope that down the road we might be able to resurrect the idea of a debate over academic freedom and political indoctrination at NCA."

In the interview, Hogan acknowledged that Horowitz had agreed to waive his normal speaking fee, and that Horowitz's style is not something that just emerged in public view in the last week, but was well known prior to the initial discussions. But he insisted that there is "no story" because there was "no invitation." All the NCA did was approach Horowitz about the possibility of his speaking, leading to negotiations, but never to an invitation, he said. Hogan also noted that by inviting Neal, of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, to take Horowitz's place, the group was assuring that Horowitz's views would be represented. (Neal could not be reached Monday. She has generally distinguished herself from Horowitz, although they criticize many of the same things in higher education.)

Cloud said she viewed Neal as "just as reactionary" as Horowitz. The invitation to Neal hasn't been formally announced, so Cloud said she didn't know how she and others might respond. "She's definitely protest-worthy. It's the same agenda." In an e-mail, Horowitz said of his replacement: "While Anne Neal is an articulate individual who shares many of my views, it is obvious to anyone that a debate with Anne would not deal with many of the issues I have raised."

Hogan said that the discussion led by Cloud on the appropriateness of inviting Horowitz had no impact on the group's decision. Cloud also said she didn't play a role in the decision. Hogan said that some of Horowitz's demands were seen as unreasonable, and that justified the decision not to extend an invitation. Some on the board that reviewed the proposal thought that having a bodyguard present "communicates the expectation of confrontation and violence." While Horowitz cited Cloud's views as evidence that he needed to be prepared for disruptions, she scoffed at that, saying that she would never cause him harm and that the kind of protest she advocates doesn't require a bodyguard.

As for Horowitz, he said that it was "splitting hairs" to say he hadn't been invited. Via e-mail, he said that the early e-mail from Hogan appeared to be an invitation. "It offers me an honorarium, tells me who my debating partner is, etc. I took it as an invitation. Do you think Hogan would have sent me such a letter if it was normal for his board to then veto his proposals?" he said.

Horowitz said of the turn of events: "It is obviously a rejection of the idea of by the NCA -- the idea being that after five years David Horowitz should actually get to present his ideas to an academic association.... The fact that no academic group has had the balls to invite me says a lot about the ability of academic associations to discuss important issues if a political minority wants to censor them."


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