When should a college uninvite a speaker?

I’ve been criticized for a recent tweet in which I supported the decision to disinvite a speaker in a lecture series here at Williams College, where I teach. In case anyone cares (which I doubt) here’s my thinking.

I initially supported President Adam Falk when he disinvited John Derbyshire from a lecture series called “uncomfortable learning.” Derbyshire has been accused of racism and sexism. Although I am, of course, firmly against both of these isms, my reasoning had nothing to do with Derbyshire’s message. I want to see people I disagree with have a voice on campus.

My problem was his method. I did not think his recent writings were particularly rational. I don’t mean he’s crazy — and who would I be to judge — but simply that, at least at the time, I decided his conclusions didn’t seem justified by reality. (Maybe I’m also a bit touchy about people making claims without any logic or evidence behind them because of the current primary season.)

I’ve lost some of my conviction, though. First, I might have misjudged Derbyshire’s methods. More importantly, I’m not sure it’s possible to consistently apply standards of rationality and honesty, and even if it were, doing so would exclude a lot of people of all political stripes.

For example, nothing is more shameful in academia than people who use their credentials, degrees, and status as professors as a plank from which to weave crowd-pleasing stories that aren’t based on evidence, logic, or rationality. But would I stop Dr. Oz from explaining how to talk to the dead, or Vandana Shiva from talking about the dangers of GMOs? What about climate-change deniers or anti-vaxers? The longer my list of censored speakers gets the more I start to think I’m in the wrong to support uninviting anyone.

One thing I’m sure of, though: College campuses are THE place where rational debates should find safe harbor. If colleges want to create safe spaces, they should be places where it is safe to speak one’s mind, not where people are safe from hearing messages they don’t like (having such spaces is fine, but colleges needn’t provide them).

I wouldn’t want to disinvite someone because I don’t like their message — again, I want to hear from people who disagree with me — but only if they don’t make a rational case for it.

The next speaker in the series is Charles Murray. I’m glad he was invited because whether you agree with him or not, he raises important questions that push students and faculty alike to think hard.

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