The Standards for Campus Speakers
On the evening of February 23, Tufts students disrupted a discussion between Alan Solomont, Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, with chants and coordinated walkouts. According to a press statement by Tufts United for Immigrant Justice (UIJ) and Tufts Student Action (TSA) organizers, the demonstration was staged to protest Baker’s record on “immigration, education, and racial and economic justice.” The UIJ/TSA statement described the university’s decision to bring Baker to campus as “unacceptable” and “deplorable;” that they disputed not only Baker’s positions but also his presence at Tufts made the protest particularly contentious on campus. “To protest as a means of pushing politicians and policymakers to take a stand on tough issues is one thing,” wrote the editorial board of The Tufts Daily. “But to protest the rights of these politicians to speak publicly at Tufts is a different story.”
The incident came at a moment when a surge in protests against largely conservative speakers invited to colleges across the country has become a national political issue. Like recent protests of speakers at Middlebury College, University of California, Berkeley, and other schools, the action at Tufts raises tough questions about free speech on college campuses—what it encompasses, who it applies to, and who should have a say in such questions.
The roots of the modern debate over free speech in academia can be traced to the Free Speech Movement, which was started by UC Berkeley student Mario Savio in 1964 to protest the school’s ban on nearly all political activities. The first demonstrations of the movement came around the time that UCLA’s Speaker Ban, which was used by the university to prevent socialists and political activists like Malcolm X from speaking to students, was finally lifted. “Savio supported freedom of speech not merely on instrumental grounds but as an end in itself, since speech acts were in his eyes the essence of what it meant to be human,” his biographer, Robert Cohen, wrote.
Critics claim a new generation of liberal student protesters has lost sight of this ideal, and has instead adopted a perverted definition of free speech that may be applied selectively. “Somewhere along the way, those young men and women—our future leaders, perhaps — got the idea that they should be able to purge their world of perspectives offensive to them,” wrote New York Times columnist Frank Bruni in a widely-circulated op-ed after students at Middlebury interrupted an interview with conservative political scientist Charles Murray last month. Murray co-wrote The Bell Curve, which has been widely discredited as racist pseudoscience, in 1994.
“Speech codes are not the way to go on campuses, where all views are entitled to be heard, explored, supported or refuted,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website states. “How much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most.”
Sophomore Parker Breza, a member of TSA and an organizer of the Baker protest, rejects this concern. “Tufts is a private institution,” he said, and “we get to decide which speakers do and do not speak here. So, I think the whole free speech thing is just kind of irrelevant.” Tufts, he said, purports to value the place of refugees and undocumented students at the university, and to invite someone like Baker is a betrayal of those values. Baker has declined to support legislation that would make Massachusetts a sanctuary state, announced in 2015 that he would veto in-state tuition for undocumented students, and said he does not want Syrian refugees to resettle in Massachusetts.
“Really what we’re trying to do in these protests is highlight the hypocrisy here in saying that you can’t simultaneously say that you’re an institution that supports undocumented students, that supports international students, that supports refugee students, and at the same time bring [to campus] someone who is actively working against all of those students,” Breza said.
Freshman Leticia Priebe, a TCU senator and member of UIJ, agreed. “A politician whose policies perpetuate the oppression of some of the most vulnerable communities in the US should not be welcomed to speak at this university, especially when Tufts claims it is committed to protecting its students,” she said.
Solomont said he encourages students to protest, but nevertheless maintains, “I draw a line in terms of disrupting an event. I think it’s very important we have a free exchange of ideas—that’s what universities are based upon.” Students, he said, should focus on persuading their peers and exposing the injustice of positions a speaker holds by engaging with them. “At the end of the day, what’s the purpose of a protest? It’s to win support from others. It’s not just to express yourself,” he said. “I mean, really, you’re looking to effect change. You want to have more people look at the governor with a critical eye. One has to think, if that’s what I’m trying to do, what’s the most effective way of bringing other people along?”
This is a common refrain in the debate over campus protests, but Breza thinks that in this case, the “more dialogue” argument overlooks “who’s given the platform, who’s given the mic, [and] who’s given the ability to speak.”
“I think people in the wake of this are really focused on this idea of dialogue, that we just need to engage in more dialogue and then we’ll understand each other better and then all of a sudden we’re going to have a great world,” he said. “If someone has actively taken a policy position against your community, can you really, actually have a fair and equal platform, especially considering the fact that this is the governor, who has the actual ability to make these policy changes?”
“It was pretty obvious there was a dialogue between two people, Dean Solomont and Governor Baker,” he added. “There were two seats pointed at each other ready to talk in front of the rest of the crowd.” Baker mostly recited anecdotes from his life, said Breza, and only addressed substantive issues when protesters called on him to do so. “This event was not set up for dialogue.”
The Baker talk was part of Tisch College’s Distinguished Speakers series, which has also hosted conservatives like former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, former Virginia Representative Tom Davis, and Andy Card, George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff. Solomont said he invites speakers “any time there’s an opportunity to bring someone to the Tufts campus who occupies an important position in public life,” regardless of their political leanings.
This could even extend to someone like Rush Limbaugh, Solomont noted, who “has a very negative impact on American politics. He’s an important player—a really important player,” he said. “And I’m not so sure that if I had an opportunity to bring him to campus I would not. He’s going to say things that I couldn’t disagree with more. But I think it’s important people understand—and you can’t shut that out. He’s appealing to millions of Americans.”
“It is inevitable that some programs and speakers will be offensive to some members of the community,” the Tufts Student Handbook states. “That offensiveness will not be seen as a reason to prevent the program.” Does arguing that Baker shouldn’t be given a platform at Tufts imply that this is the wrong approach? Breza doesn’t see it in those terms.
“I think a lot of people in the aftermath of this protest are bringing up these big questions, like should Tufts have a policy of never allowing speakers who have certain views to come to Tufts,” he said. “I’m not even advocating for that kind of policy. All I’m saying is that in this situation, we saw someone be given a platform that we found inappropriate based on his past actions and current positions, and we wanted to mark that and say that’s not okay with us.” As a student organizer, he said, these “big questions” are not his prerogative.
“Tufts was right to bring Governor Baker to campus, and students were right to protest,” senior Ben Kaplan, the president of Tufts Democrats, said. “This is the marketplace of ideas in action.” But the protesters argued Tufts was not, in fact, right to bring Baker to campus.
This is where the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ concept breaks down: to veto a guest speaker is to make a choice not only for those who object to that speaker but for the entire school. Protesting is commendable, said Solomont, but that’s “different from interfering with the right of other people to listen to somebody, and I can have an honest disagreement with students who think he shouldn’t have been invited. That’s subject for debate. But I don’t think any group of students or faculty has a right to dictate that to the rest of the community.”
But defenders of the protest see this differently. Tufts chose to invite Baker to campus, and in that choice, “undocumented students, international students, and a variety of other communities were not considered,” said Breza. Were they wrong, then, to object to his presence? “When someone’s viewpoints and policies have deeply negative impacts on actual human lives,” said Priebe, “not wanting them to infiltrate what is meant to be a safe space for students has nothing to do with free speech.”
Tufts student protesters condemned the school’s choice to invite Baker but did not attempt to shut down the event, instead continuing the demonstration outside the venue. “I think Tufts should be proud of the fact that there’s more civil dialogue and discussion in responsible ways than there is at a lot of other [schools],” said Solomont. “For the most part, the discussion has taken place in a very robust way. There are some places where people felt folks went over the line and didn’t help their cause, but nothing like Middlebury,” which spiraled into violence. But the Baker protest reaffirmed a fundamental disagreement over the nature of free speech on campus—a disagreement which does not appear likely to dissipate anytime soon.