How Not to Defend Free Speech

National Association of Scholars

This article was originally published by RealClearEducation on May 9, 2017. The entire article is also available at

Robert Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch, spoke before a large, respectful audience at Gettysburg College last Wednesday, at the invitation of the school’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter. In the lead-up to the event, students complained and 375 alumni signed a letter calling for his talk to be canceled because, they wrote, “Allowing him to visit and speak will be an act of violence against Muslim students at Gettysburg College and will further legitimate his false and hateful message.”

Spencer writes and speaks about radical Islam and jihad. His most recent book is The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Iran (2016). In 2013 he was prohibited from entering the UK to give a scheduled speech, and in 2006, Pakistan banned his book, The Truth About Muhammad. In his talks, he frequently reads passages from the Qur’an that he says justify human rights abuses in radical Islam, such as sex slavery.

Outrage and protest over Spencer as a campus speaker are not unique to Gettysburg. Most recently, on May 1, students at the University of Buffalo drowned out his presentation, chanting and screaming throughout the event. According to Spencer, the UB administrators did nothing to restore order.

At Gettysburg, President Janet Morgan Riggs answered the alumni letter by declaring that Spencer would still make his presentation on “The Political Ramifications of Islamic Fundamentalism,” and that another speaker, Luther College professor Todd Green, would give a talk that same week, on “Professional Islamophobia.” Riggs cited the college’s freedom of expression statement, which quotes Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis: “If there be a time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

In these days of campus speaker shout-downs and dis-invitations, Riggs stands out for her principled defense of intellectual freedom. At least, so it might seem. Riggs is not quite a shining example of free speech protection. Her response to the situation sent conflicting messages.

Selective on Second Speakers

Riggs’s choice to bring in another speaker appears to be a helpful gesture toward ideological balance. Debates and panels that offer competing points of view are sadly rare on college campuses now. Students deserve to hear more than one perspective on controversial ideas. But here the additional speaker concept is applied selectively. For example, in March the department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Gettysburg hosted transgender activist Aren Aizura, who promotes “queer theory” and gender reassignment surgery. The college did not bring in a speaker to present the counter view that accommodating gender dysphoria is destructive in a manner similar to accommodating anorexia.

The “more speech” policy appears to apply only in cases where the point of view does not conform to progressive ideology.

Clash of Values

Riggs wrote the following in her letter to the community: 

"This issue is difficult because it pits two core institutional  values against one another:  

  • the free and open exchange of ideas and the exploration of their ethical and  spiritual dimensions; and       

  • the commitment to a diverse and inclusive learning environment." 

Taken literally, these values are really not in conflict. “A diverse and inclusive learning environment” ought to mean a college where students and faculty members of differing backgrounds and views can come together to participate in a marketplace of ideas, and no idea is excluded without due consideration. But “diverse and inclusive” has come to be a euphemism for its opposite: homogenous and exclusionary.

In that sense, Riggs is right to recognize a clash of values. This is the reason so many campus speakers are prevented from talking: when the free exchange of ideas is confronted by the notion that a certain view is “hateful” to a preferred identity group, free speech usually loses. This time, Gettysburg College did the right thing by ensuring that Spencer could speak. But Riggs noticed something real, the incompatibility of “diverse and inclusive” (as the notion is practically applied) with intellectual freedom. Colleges and universities should reconsider their institutional values and drop the language of “diverse and inclusive” in order to protect intellectual freedom.

Taking Sides

As is sometimes the case with college administrators who countenance controversial speakers, Riggs couldn’t resist showing her own biases. At the Todd Green event, when a student challenged her decision to allow Spencer to speak, she replied, “My fantasy is that we will have four or five people sitting in a room with Robert Spencer, and the other 2,500 members with Jerome at his rally.  I think that’s what we can do to counter the fear that a speaker like this can bring to this community.”

Riggs’s call for students to boycott Spencer’s talk to attend a simultaneous “Muslim solidarity rally” and her assertion that Spencer could bring “fear” to campus compromised her defense of his right to speak. This declaration was essentially an act of self-justification to students and alumni who might accuse her of not being on the right side. Getting steamrolled by angry students is a legitimate concern for college presidents these days, but it is up to presidents to show students how to listen to views they disagree with and to model what openness to different ideas looks like.

Imperfect Virtue

Gettysburg College did the right thing by ensuring an invited speaker’s right to be heard. Riggs is to be commended for not surrendering to the many who pressured her to turn Spencer away. But her declaration of her hope that no one would attend considerably weakened her position. Students need to see examples of gutsy defenses of intellectual freedom. Riggs falls short of that.

It is possible that Riggs’s statement actually served as an impetus for more students to attend Spencer’s talk. The room was filled with nearly 400 people, including many who disagreed with what he had to say but nevertheless came to listen.

Controversy can help pique curiosity. Ultimately, however, it should be a normal, even mundane occurrence to have views across the spectrum aired and debated on a college campus. That is the mark of a “diverse and inclusive learning environment” in the best sense.

Ashley Thorne is the Executive Director of the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Freedom of Speech, Occupy San Francisco (9 of 19) by Glenn Halog // CC BY-NC 2.0

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