Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2018

Disciplines

Education Law | First Amendment | Law | Law and Race

Center/Program

Center for Constitutional Governance

Abstract

“If you’re afraid to offend, you can’t be honest.”

“If you offend me, I can’t hear what you’re trying to tell me.”

—overheard on campus

The debate over how colleges and universities should respond to contentious guest speakers on campus is not a new one. A quick look back to the early 1990s, among other times, shows commentators squaring off much as they do today about the tensions between protecting free expression and ensuring meaningful equality.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the issues that contested speakers address are also much the same as they have been for several decades – government action and inaction on various issues, the rights and social status of identity-based groups, and con-flicts within political territories and regimes, among others. And, I would predict, questions about how institutional leaders should respond to these speakers will still be quite pressing twenty or thirty years from now.

My aim in this brief essay is not to rehash the familiar debates but rather to consider whether and how schools ought to mitigate harms that may occur as a result of these speakers presenting their views on campus. That is, I start from the premise that, for both non-consequentialist and pragmatic reasons, colleges and universities should allow invited speakers to give their remarks on campus and should undertake serious efforts to minimize and prevent disruption. I also begin with the premise that some of these talks may come with real costs for individuals and groups within the community, for the school community as a whole, and for those who encounter these speakers and their views in non-campus settings.

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