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What to Do When Provoked

With a nod to Bob Dylan, when it comes to free speech issues and protests on college campuses these days, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows: in every direction, and at gale force.

It’s not surprising that such issues trigger strong opinions. Take, for example, the appearance of Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute, who spoke at our law school in March at the invitation of a student organization. A group of law students disrupted her remarks, and weather vanes across the blogosphere soon began spinning in counterprotest. Similar campus incidents of varying intensity have become widespread throughout the country. And yet a recent survey by the American Council on Education found that 96 percent of college presidents prefer allowing students to be exposed to many types of speech rather than shielding them by prohibiting speech.

I stand with the majority of my colleagues while adding a caveat: we must also be mindful of the impact certain events are likely to have on students and groups who see them as occasions for hate speech sanctioned by people in power. Students react strongly —and are immediately and widely labeled as opposing free speech—not necessarily because they are ill- informed or close-minded. Rather, they perceive that their core values and beliefs are being obstructed, even oppressed, by social structures and political forces beyond their control.

When clashes seem inevitable, our inclination as administrators might be to exercise authority by rescinding a speaker’s invitation and shutting down the event. A better response as leaders—indeed, as educators—would be to employ the academy’s inherent power to help people unpack and understand the facts, thoughts, and emotions triggered by volatile issues and controversial speakers.

For example, let’s restructure the lightning-rod lecture as a debate; even raucous discourse can remain civil. Or organize a counterpresentation and discussion. But banning speech outright or disrupting a speaker generates more heat than light, advances neither knowledge nor understanding, and plays into the hands of provocateurs. Indeed, as Professor of Law Ozan Varol said at our campus-wide Free Speech Symposium last October, “When we banish radical ideas from the public sphere, they don’t go away. They start doing push-ups.”

But we also need to make a distinction: Provocative thinkers are not by default provocateurs. The former seek to stimulate debates about ideas. The latter seek to make themselves the focus of their energies. Our campus should not be a haven for the like-minded, so we do our best to welcome provocative ideas.

Witness, for example, our longtime annual symposia in environmental affairs, race and ethnic studies, gender studies, and international affairs—each planned and organized by students, and each designed to explore convention-breaking ideas that stimulate debate grounded in knowledge and experience. The organizers bring together people of different backgrounds and viewpoints in a variety of ways, including presentations, panels, debates, and performances, each ripe with opportunity for lively interactions. In these events, our students invite all participants to do what they themselves work to do every day: listen critically, think independently, and act justly.

This is provocation worth fighting for.

Wim Wiewel, President

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