Skip to main content

How Higher Education Is Evolving Its Thinking Around Controversial Campus Speakers

A public policy non-profit has put together some guidelines to help universities prepare for future free speech controversies.
Demonstrators gather at the site of a planned speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer at the University of Florida campus on October 19th, 2017, in Gainesville, Florida.

Demonstrators gather at the site of a planned speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer at the University of Florida campus on October 19th, 2017, in Gainesville, Florida. Not since the 1970s has campus activism been so visible—and potentially dangerous.

The last few years have been explosive ones for American colleges and universities. Student protests over controversial speakers and events—the most extreme example involving white supremacists terrorizing the University of Virginia—seem to have become a standard part of the undergraduate experience. Not since the 1970s has activism been so visible and, as the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Berkeley, California, indicate, potentially dangerous.

As trouble intensified on collegiate quads between late 2016 and 2018, many wondered if university officials should have been better prepared to handle the spate of public controversies. That criticism was put forth most succinctly by University of Missouri professor Ben Trachtenberg, in his conversation last year with Harvard EdChat:

If you live in a place where there is sometimes snow, you have to have a plan for what you do if there's a big snowstorm.... And, if you live in America and you don't foresee the possibility of protests against racial injustice or other kinds of injustice—where have you been?

To be fair, some college and university officials were meeting off the radar to discern the deeper nature of these protests. Most notably, the American Council on Education, a public policy advocacy non-profit, held four meetings over the last two years to help university officials understand and better frame preparation for future threats to college campuses riled by controversial figures.

Here, with the last meeting complete, are some of their more critical findings:

  • Perspective is needed. Despite the abundance of media attention paid to protests over controversial speakers, they are hardly the norm. Less than 10 percent of college presidents interviewed by the American Council on Education reported having to deal with such an incident on campus. Likewise, less than 9 percent of interviewed students said they had ever attended such a protest. Issues involving diversity/inclusion were far more likely to evoke a protest than a controversial speaker—with 26 percent of students having attending a protest for that cause (for example: Yale University students protesting for a name change for Calhoun College).
  • Sometimes the question to disinvite a speaker is moot. As a legal matter, colleges and universities—namely public ones—often lack the right to reject speakers based on the content of their views. Some critics argue that turning away campus speakers on this basis (a motive usually obscured by appealing to security concerns) is a value judgment that universities have every right to exercise. But, as the ACE writes, "Public institutions are state actors and therefore legally bound to protect First Amendment freedoms."

    Speech can certainly be restricted—for example by applying limitation on a presentation's time and space. But, according to Hannah Ross and Justin Kavalir—writing in the newsletter for the National Association of College and University Attorneys, institutions "have limited ability to control which speech occurs on campus." Bottom line: Public universities don't always have the ability to dismiss a speaker on the grounds of his controversial (or even plain hateful) opinions.
  • While universities might use security costs and concerns as an excuse to disinvite a speaker to campus whose opinions they abhor, those costs can indeed be legitimately outrageous—and universities bear most of them. The University of California–Berkeley has been strafed by these costs. Before Milo Yiannopoulos' 2017 speaking event was canceled due to violent student protests (that resulted in $100,000 in damage), Berkeley had spent $800,000 on campus security for the event. A few months later it spent $600,000 on security to host the Daily Wire's Ben Shapiro. By contrast, in 2016, the school spent $200,000 total for an entire year of campus security during speaking events. The lesson is clear—and, some think, optimistic: Controversial speakers may become too much of a security cost for universities to invite them in the first place.
  • University presidents are under no obligation to assume a position of neutrality when it comes to controversial speakers. According to ACE, "there is nothing to prevent [university presidents] from speaking out against visitors—they, too, have the right to freedom of expression." Presidents who run universities with clear mission statements are better prepared to condemn a speaker's dangerous views as a violation of institutional values. The good news is that about 90 percent of universities have "clear, public statements that reinforce stated institutional values." Presidents should feel more comfortable dishing out some harsh opinions.

Balancing the demands of inclusion and freedom of expression, especially in the fishbowl of the college campus, is no enviable task. But the ACE's findings suggest that a better understanding—especially among protesting students—of what can and cannot be done when a provocateur heads to your school might lead to what many think is the most effective response to a controversial speaker: State the reasons for your opposition, deliver it to the firebrand, and don't show up. Sometimes silence makes the most noise.