Wesleyan University president purports to comport intellectual diversity with “hate speech” ban; the result is still censorship

A friend affiliated with Wesleyan University sent me the New York Times article below, saying that I should be aware of the school’s efforts to “encourage a diversity of opinion in public debates on campus while barring hate speech and so on.”  Intrigued but doubtful, I read the article by Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth, which took me to two related articles he wrote.

First, what is a “kakistocracy”? I thought this was a new word, but Wikipedia defines it as “a system of government that is run by the worst, least qualified, and/or most unscrupulous citizens. The word was coined as early as the seventeenth century.” Well, yes, we have one now, but let’s move on to the piece.

Roth’s Wikipedia page reveals him not only to have had some unexpected views for a college president, like supporting Israel and refusing to support BDS (he’s Jewish), and the two articles he refers to in the piece below ( “On intellectual diversity” at the Wesleyan site and “Don’t dismiss ‘safe spaces’” at the NYT ) are not that bad.  But the articles, and especially this one in today’s NYT, despite calling for more freedom of speech than accepted by many other schools (though not my own), suffer from specifying exactly what kind of “hate speech” is to be banned. 

Click to read:

Now Roth has instituted some good programs to foster intellectual diversity at Wesleyan, like an initiative to accept military veterans as students and another to promote Wesleyan departments to “expose students to ideas outside the liberal consensus,” like “the philosophical and economic foundations of private property, free enterprise, and market economies.” Another program will bring senior military officers to campus to teach courses on the relationship between “military institutions and civil society.”

This is all well and good, and is to be applauded. But there’s a limit to Roth’s tolerance. Apparently he regards “intellectual diversity” as encompassing just acceptable politically conservative points of view, and not more “fringe” areas like discussions of creationism or Holocaust denialism. Here are some statements by Roth that make me think that, to him, “hate speech” is speech that is either hyper-conservative, politically extreme, or ideologically out of bounds to most Leftist students:

These days when I make a plea for greater intellectual diversity, I’m asked not about teaching Aristotle, but whether I want to invite fascists and racists to campus. My answer, of course, is no: As I have argued before, universities should be “safe enough” places for all students.

. . . When I talk about the tradition of conservative thinkers, I have in mind those who were skeptical of the powers of a central government, those who felt that a well-ordered society depended on a notion of transcendence, and those who were concerned that even well-intentioned policies to improve peoples’ lives could have unintended consequences that are ruinous. I have in mind traditions of natural law and of religious belief. I have in mind thinkers who point out that theories of how people should organize society often depend on frightening powers of organized violence.

These streams of thought offer powerful, alternative perspectives on enduring questions.

. . . In higher education, there is no contradiction between standing up to the fascist tendencies of racist authoritarianism and working for greater intellectual diversity.

I think he’s wrong here. He wants mainstream conservatives but not provocateurs like Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, or perhaps even conservatives of a Trumpian stripe like Steve Bannon. He presumably won’t tolerate Holocaust denialists, who can be seen as racist authoritarians. And no fascists? What does he mean by “fascist”? It would have been good had he proffered examples, but we have to read between the lines. Would he have promoted a talk by the late Christopher Hitchens on the evils of Islam? Roth doesn’t say. So often administrators don’t specify what they mean as hate speech, and that makes the slope very slippery indeed.

From the Wesleyan site article:

We are not interested in bringing in ideologues or shallow provocateurs intent on outraging students and winning the spotlight. We want to welcome scholars with a deep understanding of traditions currently underrepresented on our campus (and on many others) and look forward to the vigorous conversations they will inspire.

That’s a bit more specific but still not very helpful. Who is to specify and decide which “ideologues or shallow provocateurs” should be banned? Apparently Roth himself is to be the Decider, since he’s speaking for all of Wesleyan here.

And so, while Roth is miles above leaders of censorious schools like Williams College, Middlebury College, and The Evergreen State College, he’s still trying to rule some speakers out of bounds. He hasn’t taken as hard a line on free speech as say, the University of Chicago (although, as I’ve noted lately, we’re developing our own toxic strains of ideological conformity and acceptable speech).

If some organization at a university wants to invite a creationist, Ann Coulter, a Holocaust denialist, or a white supremacist to a campus, they should have the right to do so. Though you may say that these speakers purvey “hate speech” (and that’s justifiable for many such folks), it cannot be banned speech. Wesleyan, though a private school, should adhere to the strictures of the First Amendment as embodied by the Chicago Principles, also from a private school. After all, part of free speech is the principle of counter-speech. Are Wesleyan students so timorous that certain speakers would be so hateful that they could not abide hearing them, much less hearing a response?

Let’s look at how Roth’s views have played out in practice—on the Wesleyan campus. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gives Wesleyan an overall “yellow light” rating:

Wesleyan University has been given the speech code rating Yellow. Yellow light colleges and universities are those institutions with at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.

More FIRE explanation of the yellow-light rating.

A “yellow light” institution is one whose policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression. For example, a ban on “posters containing references to alcohol or drugs” violates the right to free speech because it unambiguously restricts speech on the basis of content and viewpoint, but its scope is very limited.

Alternatively, a policy banning “verbal abuse” could be applied to prohibit a substantial amount of protected speech, but is not a clear violation because “abuse” might refer to unprotected speech, such as threats of violence or harassment as defined in the common law. In other words, the extent of the threat to free speech depends on how such a policy is applied.

It looks as if Roth’s own ambiguity has worked its way into Wesleyan’s speech-code regulations. (Note that several aspects of the school’s policy get the approved “green-light rating as well.). And in 2016, Wesleyan was among the “Ten Worst Colleges for Free Speech,” while Roth had already been President for nine years (see details here). Now the school may have cleaned up its act since then—I think it has, to some extent—but it still needs to go the extra mile to get that overall “green light rating” from FIRE.

“Hate speech” is indeed a slippery slope, and, as I’ve often said, one student’s “hate speech” is another’s “free speech” or “speech that warrants discussion.” Roth goes too far in setting up certain categories of impermissible speech. As Hitchens, Mill, and others have said, it is the most odious and offensive speech that must be heard most urgently.


  1. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I thought your new word, Kakistocracy was interesting. Why don’t the liberal schools do more to question how we got where we are today and what we should be doing. Get off of the social issues that have already been beaten to death. For instance, something very recent – why is America doing worse on the virus than almost all other countries. Why do we have 200,000 dead and climbing while Taiwan had 7. Why do we ignore anything going on in other parts of the world and not look around for better ideas. Why is our system of govt. so highly popular in this country when we are doing so bad?

  2. Historian
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I agree that an organization of a university should be allowed to invite controversial speakers, the question arises: who should pay for security? How does the University of Chicago handle this situation? Should the organizations be required to post a bond? If this is not the case, what is to stop an organization from inviting a controversial speaker everyday, thus foisting on the university as a whole security bills amounting to the many thousands?

    • Posted September 20, 2020 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      The security bill should be charged to the students trying to disrupt the event, not to the organisations that simply want to peacefully listen to a speaker and have an orderly Q&A session.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted September 20, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        Maybe that is a dream from some but not reality. Just charge that security bill to the people doing the damage – I wonder if that has ever worked. Just to put the offenders in jail would be nice and how much does that cost. This glazed over part of the college speaker problem is why many are de-platformed or not invited. I have never seen the issue resolved. The issue is money.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 20, 2020 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        I think the university could impose some monetary penalty on students who actually endeavor to disrupt an invited speaker (some of which money could perhaps be used to offset the costs of security).

        But I’m uncertain of the efficacy of any plan that would bill the security costs ahead of time to students who are merely threatening to disrupt a speaking event. Plus, I think any attempt to institute such a plan would have an intolerable “chilling effect” on the free speech of students intending to exercise their right to peacefully protest the appearance of a speaker.

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted September 20, 2020 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        Yes, we can just defund the police and have the crooks pay the bill. Should work out fine with no problems.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted September 20, 2020 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      I think the university alone bears the burden of providing adequate security for any speaker invited to campus pursuant to a duly authorized speaking program (unless, perhaps, there is persuasive evidence that a group invited such speaker to campus solely for the purposes of trolling the university by bleeding its assets in doing so).

  3. Posted September 20, 2020 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    “Hate speech” is just today’s term for heresy.

    And only intolerant religions want to censor heresy.

  4. Jon Gallant
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    So nice to know that Wesleyan would not bring “ideologues or shallow provocateurs” on campus. I suspect they would not realize that
    the second category perfectly describes Ward Churchill, and the first to all the other darlings of the woke Left. As for “standing up to …fascist tendencies”, the problem here is obvious. The Green Party’s VP candidate wrote a piece in 2016 referring to the “fascism” of the Obama administration.
    [The woke Left’s promiscuous misuse of the “fascist” label goes right back to the KPD of Weimar Germany, which routinely described the Social Democrats as “social fascists”.]
    On the other hand, Roth’s statement at least hints in a Liberal (in the classic sense) direction. I suppose, in these times, one should be grateful for mere hints.

  5. Caldwell Titcomb IV
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    the fascist tendencies of racist authoritarianism

    To me that means people who support racial “affirmative action” in academics or other areas, but I doubt that’s what the author meant.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Would he have promoted a talk by the late Christopher Hitchens on the evils of Islam?

    The Hitch loathed all religions, including Islam. And he certainly viewed radical Islamism as an unalloyed evil. But we should recall that he maintained many Muslim friends.

    One of them was Edward Said, the Palestinian-American anti-Orientalist, although the two were estranged for a while later in life. After all, Hitchens titled one of the chapters in his memoir, Hitch-22, in honor of Said. And the Hitch risked rudeness by getting in a row with Saul Bellow (one of Hitchens’s literary heroes) when Martin Amis brought Hitch along as a guest to a lunch at the great novelist’s home, and Bellow started bad-mouthing Said (even though it was during the period of the Hitchens-Said estrangement).

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    He [Roth] wants mainstream conservatives but not provocateurs like Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, or perhaps even conservatives of a Trumpian stripe like Steve Bannon.

    I, too, question whether a university itself ought demean itself by associating with the likes of mere provocateurs such as Coulter or MiYi or Bannon. But where a student organization or faculty member invites such people to speak on campus, pursuant to a university-authorized speaking program, it violates the spirit of free expression for the university administration to step in and put the kibosh on such speaking engagements.

  8. James Walker
    Posted September 20, 2020 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    The word has indeed been around for a while – aristos is Greek for the best, kakistos is the worst

    • Jessica
      Posted September 21, 2020 at 4:44 am | Permalink

      There is a qualitative, not quantitative difference between Ann Coulter or Steve Bannon and a sincere alternative view like George Will or Edmund Burke or even a Holocaust denier like David Irving (a sincere, if myopic, historian). The first group act in bad faith. The second do not. The university’s mission is to promote and seek true knowledge and wisdom. That is non partisan. And it has a moral and ethical aspect. It is not possible to debate and deliberate with those who have no sincere beliefs, but rather seek power and pleasure through deceit and manipulation, as Coulter and Bannon do. True heretics should be welcome, predators should not.

      • Posted September 21, 2020 at 5:20 am | Permalink

        You don’t know if they’re arguing in bad faith, and many creationists and Holocaust deniers are arguing in good faith. Are you going to be the person who decides which speaker really believes what they say. No disrespect, but I wouldn’t trust you (or anyone) to make that decision for me. I, for example, think Bannon is arguing in good faith.

        Lots of people who make odious arguments in good faith. They should be allowed to speak.

  9. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted September 21, 2020 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read Roth. But he sounds very European except that he has no support in laws defining hate speech [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hate_speech_laws_by_country#Europe ].

  10. KD
    Posted September 22, 2020 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Wesleyan’s policy is pretty clear. In addition to mandating Woke Capitalism, the University is open to accepting donations from right-wing billionaires like the Koch Brothers (Money is speech, after all, per the Supreme Court), and even endowing chairs, so long nothing is said regarding outsourcing and mass immigration. Class warfare by the Proles is not only racist, there is no return on equity for the University.

    • Jessica
      Posted September 22, 2020 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      Can you explain more clearly? I don’t follow you.

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