Speakers allow for healthy discourse on college campuses

By Noah Martens | Contributer

From World War II to the Civil Rights Movement to the Vietnam War, college students have a long history of political activism. However, some recent protests have led to speakers being uninvited or avoided altogether, simply to evade conflict.

For example, Berkley recently faced riots after Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak on campus, leading to his invitation being rescinded. Reacting to speakers and their ideologies in this way is toxic to the environment of civil discourse. Preserving said discourse is essential to a well-functioning democracy, society and atmosphere of learning. In confronting this breakdown of civil discourse taking place on several college campuses, two questions emerge: Who should be allowed to speak on college campuses, and how should individuals react to speakers with whom they disagree?

The issue of determining who should be allowed to speak places a burden on universities to screen the speakers they invite. While universities have the right to refuse to fund speakers they do not want to support, universities should still try to attract an ideologically diverse array of speakers. This is because diversity of thought and perspective enables dialogue between disparate groups, typically oriented toward problem solving.

This type of discourse environment provides profound benefits to society. A 2008 UNESCO report found that, “Generally speaking, in a state where public discussion exists and the media can deal freely with the problems of society, large-scale violence is not tolerated.”

Britt Christensen of Zayed University, in his article, “Why Freedom of Speech Matters,” presents research showing that “free flowing ideas and debates” lead to “creativity, innovation, education and cultural evolution”. With these benefits that directly relate to the mission of college education, universities must not only allow, but actively pursue, ideologically diverse speakers to talk on campus. This pursuit should occur despite personal disagreement if universities want to foster a healthy democracy and society.

When someone comes to a campus and students oppose their speech, there are a variety of productive ways students can react that speaker. The first option is simple and should be the most frequent reaction: listening, while keeping an open mind to the other perspective.

Students should go see speakers whenever they can. They are at a university to learn, expand their horizons and have their thoughts challenged. Students should especially listen to speakers they disagree with, because those speakers will offer the most potential for learning. If a student agrees with a speaker, their thinking is less likely to be challenged. That student will be less likely to create and innovate as a result of the exchange of ideas.

Likewise, the format of speakers at universities should reflect an environment of discourse rather than a lecture. This means that speakers at universities should be more open to interacting with an audience, debating and defending their ideas. This not only makes their claims more persuasive, but it also makes the event more of a two-way exchange that can be beneficial to both speakers and students.

Another good option of how students can respond to speakers involves a different approach to discourse: protest. Just as a speaker’s right to speak is protected under the first amendment, so, too, is students’ right to peacefully protest. However, this method of discourse should only be employed if the speaker will not interact with the audience and make his or her appearance a two-way exchange. It should only be used as a method of reacting to the ideas of the speaker, not to the speaker him or herself; at no point should a student ask that a speaker to not be allowed to speak. Students should simply use the protest to advocate and defend a viewpoint.

The incident at Berkeley illustrates the fact that colleges limiting ideological exchanges is growing in severity. In fact, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), in recording rates of speakers being uninvited from speaking, found, “disinvitations occur all year — and have been steadily increasing over the past 15 years.”

This is a problem for both the left and the right that stymies societal development, deepens political polarization and limits the education of students. No matter how abhorrent an ideology like Milo’s is, censoring it is an embrace of ignorance; it goes against the spirit of higher education and is un-American.

Nevertheless, it is becoming commonplace, either because of the personal biases of administrators or outside pressure. Universities should avoid these obstacles independently, but students, faculty and the public should also aid universities down the right path. By keeping administrators accountable, a healthy environment of discourse can grow, allowing the United States to maintain civic virtue in its democracy.