Contentious speakers on our campus

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

There is much in the news about contentious speakers on campuses around the country, including our own. And while some students welcome these debates, others raise serious concerns about the negative impact of white supremacists and others who express hostile and derogatory views on race, religion and gender. These kinds of messages, as you know, contradict Columbia’s core commitment to the value of all members of our community and to diversity among our students, faculty and staff, as President Bollinger has often made clear.

Against this backdrop, here’s an abbreviated explanation of why the University allows student organizations to invite speakers whose views conflict so directly with our institutional values:  It is foundational to Columbia’s learning and teaching missions that we allow for the contestation of ideas. This includes expression of ideas that are deeply unpopular, offensive to many in our community, contrary to research-based understandings, and antagonistic to University tenets.

Without this policy, the University would be in a position of deciding which views our community should hear and which it should not. Perhaps needless to say, there is often not consensus about when speakers cross the line into being impermissible. Having University officials decide which ideas outside speakers can express on campus also poses serious risks to academic freedom.

Still, when white supremacist, anti-Muslim and similar speakers come to campus, Columbia has an important responsibility to make clear our values:  that we reject those views and maintain our commitment to fostering a vibrant community founded on the fundamental dignity and worth of all of our members, as our nondiscrimination statement provides. We also support research, teaching and other opportunities for community members and the public to learn more about the deep flaws in these speakers’ views. And our Rules of University Conduct, while protecting these speakers’ right to speak without disruption, also strongly protect protesters in expressing their views.

In the coming weeks, you will have opportunities to participate in campus conversations and also learn more about these issues, including at Awakening Our Democracy: Free Speech on Campus on November 1 (register here). If you have additional ideas for how we might strengthen our efforts to reject the messages of these speakers, short of barring student organizations from inviting them to campus, I welcome your sharing them.

Professor Suzanne B. Goldberg 
Executive Vice President for University Life 
Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law