It’s a test of your adherence to free speech if you can stand up for the rights of speakers whose message you despise. And this is one case, as reported on December 24 in the Los Angeles Times (click on screenshot below).
San Diego State, a public university in California, gave $170,000 to four of its graduate students to develop programs to help the university’s black students. One of the funded students, Terry Sivers, used his allotment of $68,000 to develop a conference on reparations for slavery, a controversial but current topic. But it became even more controversial when Sivers drew up a list of speakers and vetted them to the University. As the Times reports:
The speakers ranged from the renowned author Ta-Nehisi Coates to Ava Muhammad, a controversial minister and author who also speaks to students nationally on behalf of Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam.
Farrakhan has been accused of anti-Semitism by such organizations as the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Muhammad has drawn criticism from the Anti-Defamation League, which said in 2017 that she had referred to Jewish people as “godless” and that she had been “loudly sharing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories” espoused by Farrakhan.
And indeed, here’s Ava Muhammad spouting some pretty vile things about the Jews:
Note that the list of speakers was approved by the university when it gave Sivers the money, so it might as well have been considered an invitation. But then Muhammad’s potential presence came to the University’s attention:
It quickly turned into an “uh-oh” moment when some of the school’s faculty pointed out that one of the speakers has been accused of anti-Semitism — news that spilled onto social media, causing an uproar.
The summit still might happen. But SDSU quietly announced Monday that the student has revised the speakers list to avoid “those who have espoused anti-Semitic rhetoric in the past.”
The problem “should have been caught much, much earlier,” said Peter Herman, an SDSU literature professor who brought the controversy to light last week in a local newspaper.
“This shows that the committees, faculty and administrators who approved this proposal either did so without vetting the summit’s speakers or they did the vetting and approved them anyway,” he said. “At the very least, they were irresponsible.”
The university says it thoughtfully considered the matter and took appropriate action. But campus emails and a newsletter show that SDSU — like universities nationwide — found itself grappling with a tough question:
How do we preserve free speech while minimizing the chances that someone will purposefully denigrate others?
Answer: You let the person speak if they’re already invited. And you don’t shy away from inviting anybody who might offend someone.
After Herman’s objection, the University responded this way:
Herman contacted SDSU administrators on Dec. 19 by email and asked about the wisdom of having Muhammad on the list.
He also told administrators that he was writing a story for the Times of San Diego and asked if they wanted to comment “on the appropriateness of student fees funding such speakers.
“Should people who espouse hate be invited to speak at SDSU?” he asked.
SDSU officials responded by emailing Herman that the speakers for the proposed summit had not been confirmed. Then they delivered a message that highlighted the complex and contradictory nature of the issue:
“In some cases, speakers may be invited to speak on a specific topic of interest despite having viewpoints in other areas that are not in alignment with the values and beliefs of our community,” SDSU said in the email.
“This does not mean, however, that speech intended to denigrate or dehumanize others based on their backgrounds or social identities is consistent with SDSU’s values — which it is not.”
Here we have the University claiming that Muhammad’s prior speech was unacceptable because it was in effect “hate speech”, even though she might not (and probably not) have gone after the Jews in her talk. But so what if she did? If she’s speaking about reparations, at least some of what she said would have been worth hearing, even if the listener rejected her views. What is everyone afraid of?
Yes, anti-Semitism is vile, and Muhammad’s views—at least those expressed above—are especially vile. But they won’t disappear if they’re suppressed, and perhaps students should hear the kind of anti-Semitism that’s inherent in the Nation of Islam.
But that wasn’t the view of the University, who apparently had a quiet word with Sivers resulting in a “revision” of the speakers list and the deep-sixing of anti-Semites:
A couple of hours later, SDSU issued a new statement, saying the issue had largely been resolved, without adding a lot of specifics.
“We understand recent concerns about a student-led proposal approved for Student Success Fee (SSF) funding,” SDSU said. “The student (Sivers) has since opted to revise the program, and those speakers will not be confirmed to speak at SDSU. The university supports the student’s decision.”
SDSU added: “The student’s proposed speaker list previously included those who have espoused anti-Semitic rhetoric in the past. We strongly reject anti-Semitic, and other disparaging messages and actions. SDSU will offer support to the student organizer to ensure that the original basis for the event — a critical exploration of slavery and reparations — can proceed.”
I can only imagine what they told Sivers. It was probably something like, “You haven’t gotten the money yet, so you’d better cross off the hate speakers if you want it.”
Now if Sivers called for immediate violence against the Jews, and not just another Holocaust in general, that would have been grounds to ban her. But I doubt she would have done that: even at SDSU the students probably wouldn’t have tolerated the blatant anti-Semitism evinced by Muhammad above.
So what we have is prior censorship based on a speaker’s earlier remarks—in effect, a disinvitation. And I oppose that disinvitation, even as I oppose anti-Semitism. The way to deal with someone like Muhammad is first to listen to what she says—without disrupting or deplatforming her—and then offer counterspeech if she spews anti-Semitism.
Why would we want to hear someone like her speak? John Stuart Mill summarized it in On Liberty: if your enemy espouses vile arguments, you should let them espouse, for such people reveal themselves as haters. Each generation must learn anew how anti-Semitic the Nation of Islam is, regardless of the help it gives black people. And if Muhammad offers arguments against Jews, well, you’d better know what they are, because they’re held by many Black Muslims, and you must be able to counter them. Finally, Muhammad surely would have addressed the topic of reparations, and since that is a valid issue for discussion, regardless of your feelings about it, it would have been worthwhile to hear what she said.
Now, though, the students at SDSU won’t. Thanks to their paternalistic administration, they are protecting against any views that might offend them—or stimulate their thinking.
If the University already approved the list of speakers, they have no right to go back and redact it. They didn’t have to approve the list, nor did Sivers have to invite Muhammad. But once it was a fait accompli, retracting an invitation is equivalent to censorship by a government organization. Or so I see it.