Truman State University has become this week the latest of a long line of schools to become entangled in an intensifying debate over how students should respond to campus speakers whose views they find objectionable.
In the span of several weeks, protesters at three college campuses — Claremont McKenna College, the University of California, Los Angeles and Middlebury College — have either shut down or severely interrupted speeches by controversial speakers.
Critics view the incidents as an assault on academic freedom, often at the expense of those who espouse conservative views. They point to violent protests at the University of California, Berkeley earlier this year as an example of intolerance among some students.
Tension at Truman State pales in comparison but nevertheless exists surrounding the appearance scheduled for Thursday by Robert Spencer, an author who runs the conservative website “Jihad Watch.” The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies Spencer as an extremist and anti-Muslim “propagandist.”
Some Truman State students have circulated a petition seeking to have the event canceled even as the school looks to use the incident as a teaching moment.
It’s all part of the tightrope that experts say schools must walk as they weigh matters of academic freedom against the rights of students to weigh in on hot-button issues, such as race.
But in that process, many civil liberty advocates say, schools must respect free speech.
“As a general rule, the answer to bad speech is more speech,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU of Missouri.
A national trend
The controversy at Truman State flared up when the school’s College Republicans received just over $3,000 from the university’s student-led Funds Allotment Council to bring Spencer to campus. The council is an organization funded by student fees that accepts applications from all other student-led groups on campus for funding for activities such as speakers.
Initially, the College Republicans filed an application to bring a different speaker. It’s not clear if students voted to approve the agreement to bring Spencer instead after the other speaker fell through.
Robert Shibley, executive director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said he was concerned about the number of schools canceling speeches, and he commended Truman State for not doing so.
“The trend we’re seeing is increasing normalcy of the idea of using violence or threats of violence to try to silence a speaker, coupled with universities unwillingness to take steps necessary to speak as planned,” he said. “When you put those two things together, you have a very bad environment for free speech on campus.”
Controversial far-right speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, former editor at the conservative website Breitbart, had speeches canceled at the University of California, Berkley, the University of California, Davis and North Dakota State University in recent months.
Richard Spencer, another conservative speaker — who is no relation to Robert Spencer — drew protests in December during his speech at Texas A&M University. Richard Spencer is considered to be one of the founders of the “alt-right” movement and is often identified as a white supremacist.
More recently, a speech by Charles Murray, the controversial author of the book “The Bell Curve,” which links intelligence and race, was prevented from speaking by shouting protesters at Middlebury College.
Similar eruptions interrupted remarks in recent days by Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna and UCLA. Mac Donald is the author of the book “The War on Cops.”
‘An educational experience’
Truman State spokesman Travis Miles said the university was hoping to create an essay contest and create “an educational experience” based on Thursday night’s speeches.
Spencer speaks in a campus auditorium at 8 p.m. That same evening, at 6:30 p.m., the Muslim Student Association is bringing in Faizan Syed, executive director of the Council on American-Islam Relations in Missouri. Syed is based in St. Louis.
In separate statements on Facebook, the College Republicans and Muslim Student Association both called for peaceful dialogue about both speakers Thursday.
“We appreciate the solidarity for people who would like to speak against Robert Spencer, but we’d also appreciate it if there won’t be any disruptive protests,” the Muslim Student Association wrote on Facebook. “We do love the support and believe there’s a lot of genuine concern. We’d like to be part of the conversation. So please use your energy wisely. Because we will.”
In a Facebook statement, College Republican leaders said “unsafe practices will not be tolerated” at Spencer’s speech.
“[The Muslim Student Association has] called for civility and discussion in this issue, and we couldn’t agree more,” the group wrote on Facebook. ”We would like to parrot them as we have done before, and stress to everyone on and off this campus that our ultimate goal is the safety of those who attend our speaker.”
But not all dialogue has been conciliatory. On Twitter, one student posted about Spencer’s visit. Another student responded, saying “PUNCH! HIS! FACE!” which Spencer wrote about in his blog. Spencer’s writing then generated hostile comments from readers, some of which have been deleted.
In individual messages to some students and parents on social media, Truman State leaders made a point of saying Spencer’s speech isn’t sponsored by the university and doesn’t “reflect the values of Truman State University.”
“As an institution of higher learning, the University supports the idea of an open dialogue on all topics. This often includes viewpoints many people strongly oppose. Cordial discourse on even the most contentious of topics is a fundamental tenet of a liberal arts education and a hallmark of a free society.”