defending free speech the right way: three cheers for gabriel rossman

Recently, a UCLA conservative student group invited Milo Yiannopolous to speak at the campus. Then, UCLA sociologist (and former orgtheory guest) Gabriel Rossman wrote an open letter to the Bruin Republicans urging them to rescind the invitation, which they did. Excerpts from the letter, as published in The Weekly Standard:

The most important reason not to host such a talk is that it is evil on the merits. Your conscience should tell you that you never want anything to do with someone whose entire career is not reasoned argument, but shock jock performance art. In the 1980s conservatives made fun of “artists” who defecated on stage for the purpose of upsetting conservatives. Now apparently, conservatives are willing to embrace a man who says despicable things for the purpose of “triggering snowflakes.” The change in performance art from the fecal era to the present is yet another sign that no matter how low civilization goes, there is still room for further decline.

I want to be clear that my point here is not that some people will be offended, but that the speaker is purely malicious.

I could not agree more. Gabriel makes it clear that he is defending their right to have a speaker, but that it is unwise and unethical to invite this particular speaker. On Twitter, Gabriel also makes it clear that there was a lot of internal pressure to cancel this talk, and that the open letter was a secondary part of the story.

I want to add a few words about the defense of free speech, drawn from Gabriel’s letter. First, Gabriel avoids a common mistake – no where does he oppose the talk because he thinks that having the talk will somehow legitimize racism or undermine UCLA. Universities are hardy creatures and hosting a shock jock conservative will not have any appreciable effect on racism in the larger society.

Second, he focuses on wisdom – is this really the right thing to do? Does inviting Yiannopolous really promote truth seeking? This is the difference between hosting a “conservative performance art” event and a conservative intellectual with genuinely held beliefs that need to be debated. I think this is the difference between inviting Charles Murray – who provides evidence and is willing to debate – and Yiannopolous. One has controversial views, the other is a controversy machine. There is a huge difference.

Finally, this approach provides a broader defense of free speech and debate for all people. On a basic level, students and faculty have been given the privilege to invite who ever they want to campus. And that means some nasty people will be invited from time to time and we should support that right.

On a deeper level, we need a higher standard to decide which speech should be actively supported. If someone provides data and can treat others civilly in debate, we should be very tolerant. If someone shows a basic mastery of argument and analysis of evidence, they deserve a hearing. Conversely, if a faculty member is a scholar in good standing, we should be forgiving if they mis-speak in public.

We need to appreciate that the core of the university is not free speech.  Rather, free speech is a starting point. What real scholars do is select which speech merits a spotlight and an analysis and that’s a crucial activity.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 16, 2018 at 5:12 am

4 Responses

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  1. My ongoing research turned up news stories about a Cal State campus where the Black Student Union invited a White nationalist to debate a Black civil rights leader about affirmative action. The Republican student group opposed and protested the invitation to the White nationalist on the grounds that it would stereotype conservatives as racist.

    Liked by 1 person


    February 16, 2018 at 3:48 pm

  2. o.w.: Is there a citation for that story? As someone who has studies black student groups in detail, I would be very interested in this incident.



    February 16, 2018 at 7:04 pm

  3. That would make a good Tom Wolfe novel

    Liked by 1 person


    February 16, 2018 at 7:24 pm

  4. Hah, it came up quickly. My source is New York Times Newswire. 1996-09-25. I have the details wrong. David Duke was the speaker, pitched against Joe Hicks. The BSU did not invite him, but supported the invitation. College Republicans were definitely those upset about the event, claiming it was an unfair attempt to discredit Prop 209, the anti-affirmative action proposition that ultimately passed and led to decreased enrollment of Blacks and Hispanics in the UC system.. Event was at Cal State Northridge. At the risk of copyright violation, I’ll paste in the text.

    “Tension mounted at Cal State Northridge Tuesday as the school braced for a controversial debate today pitting former Klansman David Duke against civil rights activist Joe Hicks on the issue of affirmative action.

    The controversy came to a head at a Student Senate meeting as members of the California State University, Northridge chapter of the College Republicans threatened to initiate a recall drive against student body President Vladimir Cerna unless he resigns by next week.

    Accusing Cerna of misconduct for his role in bringing Duke to campus, College Republicans President Rod Perry said his group had collected more than the roughly 2,500 signatures needed to launch a recall vote by students.

    Cerna, who cast the tie-breaking vote in the Student Senate on Sept. 3 to pay Duke $ 4,000 for his appearance, said he had no plans to step down.

    “That would be too easy,” Cerna said.

    “If they’re trying to intimidate me, it’s not going to work.”

    Earlier in the day, a brief shouting match erupted in front of the Student Union building between CSUN students and a small group of activists from the San Francisco Bay Area who were announcing plans to disrupt Duke’s appearance.

    Meanwhile, a judge Tuesday rejected a second bid to block the Associated Students at CSUN from paying Duke for his appearance.

    Superior Court Judge William MacLaughlin said there is insufficient evidence to support student Kelly S. Novak’s claim that public money is being illegally spent to help oppose Proposition 209.

    MacLaughlin rejected a similar request Monday.

    Some of the harshest criticism of Duke’s appearance has come from supporters of Proposition 209, the Nov. 5 California ballot initiative that would end racial and gender preferences in state and local government.

    Backers of the measure contend that Duke was invited to oppose affirmative action at today’s debate as a ploy to discredit the initiative through association with his extremist views.

    Duke, a former Louisiana state legislator who just lost his second bid for the U.S. Senate on Saturday, has disavowed his past ties to the Ku Klux Klan but continues to espouse racial separatism and white supremacy.

    While some object to Duke’s appearance because they see it as an affront to minorities, women and gays, leaders of many minority groups on campus, including the Black Student Union, have strongly supported Cerna’s plans to include Duke in the debate.

    They were quick to rally to Cerna’s defense.

    “We voted you in for a reason.

    Stick with what you’re doing and don’t be bullied,” declared Harold Caldwell, president of the American Indian Student Association.

    Shortly before Tuesday’s Student Senate meeting, about eight members of the Bay Area group called the Coalition to Defense Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), held a news conference vowing to try to block Duke’s appearance.

    The Northern California activists said the debate was a misguided event that would give Duke a platform to espouse his views.

    They were confronted by angry CSUN students who branded them as uninvited interlopers.

    “This is Cal State Northridge,” said Marlon Barbarin, 24, a sophomore political science major.

    “It’s pretty much up to the students here whether we want to have (Duke) or not.”

    Student Sen. Marc Powell, who voted against Duke’s appearance, has organized a separate demonstration at the Oviatt Library to provide a venue for CSUN students opposed to Duke.

    A special contingent of 30 Cal State police officers from CSUN and several other campuses will be deployed for the 2 p.m. debate at the Student Union Northridge Center, and at least 100 LAPD officers will be on standby if needed, said CSUN Police Chief Edward Harrison.

    Metal detectors will be set up at the Northridge Center, and Cerna said police will perform bomb sweeps before the event.”



    February 16, 2018 at 11:22 pm

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