If college leaders had any hope that speaker disruptions and free speech disputes would be last semester's news, they have seen otherwise in the early weeks of this academic year.
Just last week, students shouted down talks at Columbia University and the University of Michigan. Those doing the shouting down were generally students aligned with the political left, but supporters of President Trump also shut down a talk at Whittier College by California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, shouting "America First" and "build that wall" to prevent him from answering questions. And those events followed the interruption of speakers (sometimes preventing events from taking place at all) at the College of William & Mary, Texas Southern University, the University of Oregon and Virginia Tech.
With these events becoming increasingly common, the University of Chicago invited presidents and provosts from a range of institutions to come to campus this weekend for a closed-door discussion of how higher education should respond. The University of Chicago has stated in a series of statements from its leaders and monographs on its history that free expression must be respected on campuses, no matter how controversial the idea being expressed.
While the meeting at Chicago was closed to the press, organizers arranged for a group of presidents and provosts to discuss what happened and the ideas that had engaged the college leaders. Daniel Diermeier, Chicago's provost, said that the university wanted a group large enough to have different kinds of institutions represented, but small enough for intense interaction among participants. Sixty-six presidents and provosts were there.
Diermeier and other participants said the presidents were in strong agreement with principles of free speech, without exceptions. "Those principles apply irrespective of the ideological perspective of the speakers," he said.
But at the same time, some participants said that they wanted to work (and hope to have future meetings along these lines) on such issues as educating students on the First Amendment and also trying to change the narrative popular in the press that today's students are uniquely unable, compared to past generations, to deal with ideas that make them uncomfortable.
“One point that we’re not all in agreement on, but that I feel strongly about, is that [pundits and politicians have] tainted a group of students as being less resilient, as snowflakes," said Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington. "The student of today traverses a more diverse environment, with more perspectives, than a Yale student of the '20s who went to school with a valet and didn't have to confront real difference."
At the same time, Cauce said, colleges need to focus more on education of their students on the values of free expression, especially in light of the experiences today's students have had with the First Amendment.
"Many of us thought there is a need for more education of our student body, for them to have a better understanding of why the First Amendment is so important," she said. "They have seen the First Amendment used to defend racism, sexism, etc. They don’t have the real understanding that the First Amendment has been used to defend minority views."
Likewise, she said it was important to recognize that some of those claiming to be First Amendment defenders may not be.
When far-right speakers regularly engage in doxing -- sharing private information about some scholars with the public in ways that encourage harassment of those scholars -- they are trying to shut down speech, Cauce said. Of talks with more insults than ideas, Cauce said that "they are not attempting to engage in real debate."
At the University of Washington, Cauce defended the right of Milo Yiannopoulos to appear, citing principles of free expression, even as many asked her to call off the event. But she also made a point in her statements of questioning not only his views, but whether he was engaged in true discourse. A statement she made at the time said of Yiannopoulos, "He is not someone I would ever invite to speak here, not because I don’t value a robust or difficult discussion about a range of policies or social issues -- such conversations are necessary and college campuses are ideal places to have them -- but because this is clearly not the kind of conversation he is seeking. He generates heat, not light, and his manner of engagement is anything but civil, respectful or conducive to true dialogue across differences, of which we need more, not less."
The idea that presidents need to do more than just lecture about the First Amendment was a common theme among the presidents, who said that they need to show empathy with those who feel betrayed by having certain speakers appear. Presidents and provosts stressed that they could (and should) simultaneously talk about why these speakers are so offensive, while also defending their right to appear.
"We also talked through a series of scenarios where we find it logical that many students might find a particular speaker highly offensive. And we want to let them know we understand that feeling," said Todd A. Diacon, provost of Kent State University.
At the Yiannopoulos event at the University of Washington, a man was shot. A Yiannopoulos event at the University of California, Berkeley, attracted anarchist protesters who vandalized the campus. Controlling the event at the University of Washington involved 124 police officers, a mix of those from the university and from Seattle. Berkeley spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on security last month for appearances by conservative speakers (and announced appearances by speakers who didn't show up).
The University of Florida is estimating that an appearance by white supremacist Richard Spencer will cost $500,000 in security expenses.
Several presidents said that the issue of security is one that needs to be addressed. Cauce noted that many of those protesting -- sometimes in illegal ways -- are not students or otherwise connected to the university. As a result, she said it was appropriate that local police forces share responsibility, as happened at her campus.
Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, said he was concerned about the ability of speakers like Spencer to return to the same campus -- citing First Amendment principles -- time after time, potentially forcing a campus to spend millions of dollars.
Kimbrough himself has paid for security to defend principles of free expression. Dillard, a historically black institution in New Orleans, agreed to hold a debate between candidates for a U.S. Senate seat last year. When David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, qualified for the debate at Dillard, many urged Kimbrough to call off the event. But Kimbrough kept the commitment, even as protesters tried to gain entry to disrupt the event. Kimbrough said doing so had nothing to do with Duke's views, but with a university's commitment to providing a forum for a debate.
Many of the free speech conflicts attracting the most attention in the last year -- those involving Charles Murray, who was shouted down at Middlebury College, and the various speeches or attempted speeches by Spencer, Yiannopoulos and others -- have involved liberal and/or minority students, or off-campus anarchist groups opposing the speakers. Kimbrough noted that he first became interested in the issue of controversial speakers when black students were criticized in the 1990s for hosting (or trying to host) speakers such as Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a black activist who was criticized by many for anti-Semitic remarks.
Kimbrough believes in bringing speakers to campus who challenge students' views, and he has no doubts about standing by his decision to host the debate with Duke or bringing someone like Ann Coulter to his prior campus, Philander Smith College, also a historically black institution.
Kimbrough said he has been wondering whether the politicians and others concerned for the free speech rights of Murray and Yiannopoulos will be as devoted to free speech if the next controversial speaker on campus is someone like Muhammad.
“What happens when the next Khalid Muhammad comes along? Will that be handled the same way?” Kimbrough asked. "Or are we going to deal with that person differently?”
The Middlebury Perspective
Among the presidents at the Chicago meeting was Laurie L. Patton of Middlebury College. The shouting down of Murray at her college, and physical attacks on a professor who was with Murray (for the purpose of asking him questions, not supporting him), stunned many nationally and focused attention on Middlebury. The college ended up punishing a total of 67 students for their (varying) roles in the events of the night. But local police, investigating the attack on the professor, were never able to bring charges in that part of the incident.
While not minimizing what happened at the Murray event, Patton said it was important for presidents to remind the public that events at which controversial views are aired take place on campuses every day, without incident. Most recently, Middlebury hosted a debate between John Sununu, former governor of New Hampshire, and Barney Frank, a former member of Congress, on economic policy under President Trump. The two speakers have very different economic and political views, but the discussion among the participants and students was entirely civil, Patton said.
Ten days after Charles Murray was on campus, students organized a discussion of what had happened. Again, there was strong disagreement, but the discussion was civil, Patton said.
Students, she said, are looking for ways to support free expression while also making sure "that everyone has a seat at the table," and a range of views are respected.
Patton said that college leaders need to work to promote free expression and also to tell the story of what's really happening on campuses. “All of the vibrant things that happen on campus, where free speech is exercised in many ways, gets eclipsed," Patton said. "That is sad. There is a lot of amazing stuff that goes on on all of our campuses."