The independent news organization of Duke University

A right to speak

Earlier this week we tackled the line between legitimate protest and counterproductive violence in the wake of protests at the University of California at Berkeley, which turned violent in objection to speaker Milo Yiannopoulos’s visit. Today we turn our attention to a different line, exploring what it means to invite a speaker to a campus and whether the platform doing so provides can ever be apolitical.

Duke’s Mission Statement is clear about the University’s stance on discourse, giving us a duty “to promote an intellectual environment built on a commitment to free and open inquiry” and “the obligations and rewards of citizenship.” The statement affirms the value of open, uninhibited discourse conditioned by the backdrop of university membership and intellectual duty therein. It may not provide us with a policy of free speech, but it gives us the ideas that should underpin any notion of free speech that one might seek to advance. Drawing from that, it is the Board’s view that speaking at a college campus is not a right, but a privilege that is earned at least in part through substantive consistency with a commitment to inquiry in opposition to doctrine.

When Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at Berkeley last month, it was widely known that he had given a presentation at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in December where he had projected a photograph of a transgender student in the audience and mocked her, saying “The way you know he’s failed is I can still bang him.” Any explicit threats of violence aside, Yiannopoulos’ speech had nearly the same effect a threat would. And while perhaps legally permissible, it was morally indefensible and academically worthless. Concerningly, Yiannopoulos continues to be invited to speak at college campuses across the country by organizations parading their right to present alternative viewpoints and tendentious speakers despite the quality standard we posit. But the mere right to speak does not produce a claim to a university’s platform for speech.

It should be self-evident that speaking engagements, particularly at prestigious universities, are an influential and symbolically important platform for ideas, the use of which has never been an apolitical resource. In a less black-and-white example of free speech and protest, Charles Murray visited Duke in 2013 and was met with a walkout staged in protest of his controversial research on race, class and intelligence. On the one hand, the methods of this activism carried the consequence that protesters did not hear Murray’s presentation or take part in the question and answer session that followed. On the other, the war waged by progressive activism is not captured in any one moment or choice of method. In this case, protesters and their walk-out might have prompted a closer critical inspection of Murray’s research than any set of panel questions could have. A dismissal of this kind of protest must answer for the larger picture of what call-and-response looks like in academic and political spaces.

The ways in which speakers interact with campus communities, as vibrant hubs of intellectual production and transmission, vary greatly. Many speakers are innocuous, but for those who are not, whose views border enough on toxicity or bigotry to at least merit more searching scrutiny, the right to speak cannot be mistaken for the right to address, especially not on platforms as symbolic as university campuses.


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