I’m one of those weirdoes who thinks that, once invited by a Berkeley student group in good standing, Ann Coulter should have been allowed to speak at Berkeley, or at least given the same consideration and attempts at accommodation as anyone else so situated. And it should go without saying that all groups at any college should be treated equally in this regard, but Imma say it anyway.
I’m weird like that.
And I don’t approve of disinviting someone from speaking at a college once they’ve been invited to speak by someone with the standing to issue such an invitation. Absent genuine safety concerns, which may or may not have been present in the case of Coulter at Berkeley, rescinding a speaking invitation seems the coward’s way out. By extension, if you’re in a position to invite a speaker, you need to do your due diligence on that speaker before issuing an invitation (and I’ll talk more in a bit about what that due diligence should include).
But there’s another angle to Coulter Agonistes that I haven’t seen explored much.
No college, private or public, is legally, morally or ethically obligated to provide a venue to just any speaker who wants one. But more importantly, colleges are the most important bastions of free speech in the country and the shapers of future participants in our civil life. As such, I would argue, they have a special duty to do their due diligence to pick carefully the people to whom they give a venue. Specifically, they have a duty to pick people, irrespective of their viewpoint on any particular issue, who have a track record of exemplifying speech that illustrates, supports, and, ideally, enhances free speech and the free exchange of ideas in this country.
OK, so what does that look like? Glad you asked.
First and foremost, colleges should look for speakers who trade in objectively verified and verifiable facts and only the best-supported theories, unless the speaker is pushing a theory for the specific purpose of engendering more disinterested research into whether it is supported and supportable. I don’t mean that speakers should limit themselves to reciting facts, of course; opinions can be just as enlightening. But colleges should be looking to provide speaking venues only to people who have a record of proceeding from objectively verifiable facts and premises, and who have a record of opining on the basis of objectively verified and verifiable facts and premises. The Earth is round (or, at least, an oblate spheroid), the Confederacy was about slavery, human carbon combustion is responsible for global climate change, vaccines do not cause autism, cutting taxes on the wealthy does not consistently — and might not ever — increase government revenue, the Democratic National Committee did not steal the 2016 nomination from Bernie Sanders, and colleges have an affirmative duty to screen out speakers who (absent, let’s say, breakthrough, peer-reviewed new research of their own into climatology or vaccinations) claim otherwise.
This is critical because shared information — shared factual, verifiable information — is fundamental to civilization. It is critical because, as one obscure blogger has observed, reality will not ignore YOU, and society must deal in reality to solve its problems and achieve its goals. And providing resources to help support and enhance civilization and solve society’s problems is at the core of what colleges do. (On a personal level, I find dealing with delusional people really fucking annoying, but that’s neither here nor there as regards my larger point.)
Second, colleges should vet speakers for their adherence to the rules of logic, because facts alone aren’t enough and facts alone can be dangerous, particularly in isolation and without context. At the very least, colleges should avoid providing venues for speakers who routinely engage in the most common logical fallacies. They key word there is routinely; pretty much every speaker engages in the occasional logical misdemeanor. But colleges and universities have an affirmative duty not to squander their venues and forums on people who routinely trade in ad hominem attacks without also engaging with their victim’s arguments, people who trade in straw-man argumentation, and so on.
Third, colleges should provide a venue only to speakers who argue in good faith. That sounds subjective, I grant, but it can be understood as an outgrowth of points 1 and 2, combined with this standard: Does the speaker appear to sincerely believe what he/she says? One cannot read a speaker’s mind, of course, but speakers who sincerely believe what they say tend to frame their arguments in ways that speakers who don’t do not. To return to Ann Coulter, she frequently says things she manifestly does not believe, simply to get a rise out of people (consider these examples); if she actually believed these things, she would behave differently from how she actually behaves. I will refrain from speculating on why; I simply will observe that she makes a good living doing it. Milo Yiannopoulos, the Breitbart editor, is another example; “I hope to offend every reader,” he told Business Insider, which is manifestly untrue because if he actually did offend every reader, he’d have no readers and thus no money. I realize that sincerity is considered childish in an era in which irony is king, but if civilization is to benefit, colleges must limit their venues to those speakers who advocate honest ideas honestly (or who, if they trade in irony, do so in service of a larger truth, e.g., Stephen Colbert).
I note for the record that all three of these standards are agnostic with respect to location along the Left-Right political spectrum, to the extent that that concept even has any meaning.
At a minimum, colleges should use these three standards in determining to whom to extend speaking invitations. Would use of these standards solve all our problems? Nah; probably not. I suspect a number of people to the left of me politically would claim, for example, that internal arguments over whether a prospective speaker deals in facts or avoids logical fallacies would inevitably be resolved to the detriment of more marginalized voices. And I think there’s some truth to that. But I also think that this approach would work far more often than not and certainly is preferable to opening college venues to people who willfully and intentionally use lies and flawed logic to try to exert influence over public discourse and, by extension, public policy. Such people are rhetorical grifters, and neither any self-respecting college nor any self-respecting citizen owes them so much as a moment’s attention.
Free societies require informed, rational, logical discourse to function and to progress. It is a mission and a duty of colleges to provide it, and they can only do so by imposing behavior-based standards on speakers who would speak under their aegis. And that, and not any argument about the First Amendment, is what is so important about who gets to speak on our campuses.
UPDATE: In light of The New York Times’s hiring of Bret Stephens to be its newest op-ed columnist, I’m going to argue a little further that the same standards I’m recommending for colleges should apply to any curators of esteemed speaking platforms … like, oh, say, The New York Times op-ed page.
Stephens is a climate-change denier. He thinks that if a lot of college women are getting raped, then maybe women shouldn’t go to college, a bit of “logic” that defies not only law but also basic common sense. He denies that 1 in 7 Americans are food-insecure, in the face of unassailable government research to the contrary. He dismisses Black Lives Matter’s issues in favor of the discredited “all lives matter” argument and argues for the existence of the nonexistent “Ferguson effect,” which even the Fraternal Order of Police has dismissed.
And what did Marc Lacey’s national editor of The New York Times, have to say about Stephens’s hiring? This:
Readers, the @nytimes puts a priority on both aggressive coverage of the very real threat of climate change … and free speech.
— Marc Lacey (@marclacey) April 28, 2017
That is some weapons-grade stupid right there. It leaves us with the well-supported belief that the national editor of the most widely respected news outlet on the planet is dumber than my cat’s chewed-up catnip toy. Lacey is asking us to believe that freedom of speech is synonymous with a six-figure gig on his paper’s op-ed page. He is asking us to believe that supporting freedom of speech requires not just tolerating falsehood and willful ignorance but lucratively rewarding it. He is further asking us to believe that the most qualified candidate for a coveted spot on that op-ed page is a bigoted dudebro who pulls “facts” out of his ass.
Since Trump’s election, the Times has been selling a lot more subscriptions, based on the belief among prospective subscribers that the Times will be a reliable and insightful source of news, analysis and opinion. If the Times doesn’t want to worry about trafficking in accurate information, maybe it will want to worry about the fact that climate scientists are canceling their subscriptions in protest.