St. Louis University is the latest institution of higher learning to demonstrate that free speech on campuses begins and ends according to how well that speech conforms to existing political orthodoxies.
The university’s College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation had invited conservative author David Horowitz to deliver a speech on “Islamo-Fascism Awareness and Civil Rights,” but university administrators, choosing to avoid a close examination of radical Islam, cancelled Horowitz’s planned appearance.
What St. Louis University’s administration has done here is essentially exercise the “heckler’s veto,” shutting down speech with which it does not agree, or which is feels is too controversial for certain protected minorities on campus.
Even more ominously, and in seeming contradiction to the school’s own stated policy “to promote the free and open exchange of ideas and viewpoints, even if that exchange proves to be offensive, distasteful, disturbing or denigrating to some,” this particular speech was suppressed in advance of the event, based on a belief that the speaker’s words would possibly insult Muslim students and inflame their sensibilities.
There are troubling issues here, putting aside the basic question of fairness of denying certain students, with certain political beliefs, the opportunity to invite speakers to campus to share their views. Horowitz’s speech was cancelled not because it might contain speech that was demonstrably false or even incendiary, but because some individuals might be “offended” or “intimidated” by speech that they were perfectly free never to hear.
“For me, it was … the content,” explained the university’s dean of students, Scott Smith, in rationalizing the decision to rescind Horowitz’s invitation to speak, “particularly, the blanketed use of the term Islamo-fascism.”
The school was also concerned that the speech would be seen as “attacking another faith and seeking to cause derision on campus.” But where does a college administration, whose own institution claims to value speech that is even “offensive, distasteful, disturbing or denigrating to some,” decide that this particular topic – radical Islam – cannot and should not be spoken about?
Is this not a relevant discussion in a world where, since 9/11, more than 12,000 acts of terror have been committed by murderous radicals in Islam’s name? Does not an ideology which has as its aim the subjugation of other faiths and a worldwide caliphate under sharia law, and is fueled by billions in petro dollars, deserve, and, in fact, require, some critique and evaluation?
Horowitz always emphasizes in his speeches that when he is critiquing Islamo-fascism, he is not indicting all of Islam, or all Muslims, only those who use the religion as a justification for jihad. That is clearly the point of his message, and any honest listener to his speeches would think that it was.
St. Louis University’s notion that it had to preemptively protect the sensibilities of its Muslim students is at best condescending and at worst another way that unwritten speech codes are constructed, according to attorney and free speech expert Harvey Silverglate, to “protect ideologically or politically favored groups, and, what is more important, insulate these groups’ self-appointed spokesmen and spokeswomen from criticism and even from the need to participate in debate.”
More disingenuous still is how institutions of higher education, while horrified by the prospect of a David Horowitz visit, use their claims of academic free speech as a cover for regularly bringing outrageous, anti-American, anti-Israel, out-of-the-mainstream views to campuses – either in student-run organizations, in course materials and teaching philosophies, in the sponsorship of festivals and cultural events, or in the person of controversial speakers and artists.
For example, the concern over offending certain student groups does not have the same sense of urgency when speakers with views at least as controversial as Horowitz’s are enthusiastically welcomed – Norman Finkelstein, for example.
Finkelstein has loudly and notoriously pronounced his extreme views on the Middle East for years, not to mention his loathing of what he has called the Holocaust “industry,” something he has called an “outright extortion racket;” in fact, he blames Jews themselves for anti-Semitism.
Finkelstein’s best known work, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections On The Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, minimizes the magnitude of the Holocaust while simultaneously making the perverse accusation that it is used by Zionists to extract sympathy from the world community and to justify the oppression and subjugation of the Palestinians by Israelis.