Stop Focusing on the Speakers

The current brouhaha over campus speech is frustrating, because I a) am disturbed by the position(s) taken by many campus activists contra "free speech" however understood but b) think the issue is far more marginal than it is made out to be in the media, particularly but not solely in conservative media. Anyone who has spent much time on campus knows that college students are much how they have always been: largely not that interested in political questions and protesting. 

But if addressing the whole "issue" head-on seems counterproductive (if you want that, I recommend reading Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic, with whom I invariably agree on these questions) there is nonetheless one smaller intervention I would like to make: stop focusing on the speakers invited to speak at campuses when those speakers have been invited by student groups.

The following applies only at public universities, although I think private universities would be wise to emulate the speech policies public universities are required to adopt.

For an example of what I'm talking about, we can turn to a column in the New York Times today. Ulrich Baer writes

The recent student demonstrations at Auburn against Spencer’s visit — as well as protests on other campuses against Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others — should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship. Liberal free-speech advocates rush to point out that the views of these individuals must be heard first to be rejected. But this is not the case. Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good.

There is much we might complain about or contest here, but I want to restrict myself to my narrow point: "Universities invite speakers not chiefly..." is where the action is at. Richard Spencer was not invited by Auburn. Milo Yiannopoulous was invited by the Berkeley College Republicans, while Charles Murray was invited by the AEI Club at Middleburry.* These are not cases of "universities" inviting speakers: these are student groups inviting speakers. There are cases where universities invite speakers: we may think of the rash of canceled commencement addresses over the last few years. Those cases raise the question Baer wants to address: "It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community." Dis-invitations may be unwise, but protestors are surely right that no one has some unbridgeable right to speak at commencement. 

Cases where the speaker has been invited by a student group (or rents a venue from the university) are categorically different. In these cases, the student groups and members of the student groups have rights. It is of course the case that no speaker has a "right to a platform," as it is sometimes formulated. But if liberal groups are allowed to use university resources to invite speakers, disallowing conservative student groups from doing the same is clear viewpoint discrimination. As far as I can tell the two relevant Supreme Court precedents are Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, and Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth. In the former case, the Court found that "if [the University] chooses to promote speech at all, it must promote all forms of it equally." In the latter, "[w]hen a university requires its students to pay fees to support the extracurricular speech of other students, all in the interest of open discussion, it may not prefer some viewpoints to others."

Of course, student groups may be unwise to invite abhorrent speakers. Doing so may cause harm to the campus community, and students should think hard about whether or not they're doing what they're doing for virtuous reasons or to poke their political opponents in the eye. But the "university," so long as it is a public university, cannot do much about it. If you want that to change, you have to engage with the rights claims of the students doing the inviting, not the "right" of the speaker to speak. 

*Middleburry of course is private. Even in the case of private schools, however, it seems worthwhile to distinguish between cases where the university is responsible for inviting a speaker, and cases where a student organization, due to some level of autonomy bequeathed to student organizations generally, is responsible.