Tuesday, February 15, 2005

A Different Perspective on the Ward Churchill Affair

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a nice summary of l'affaire Churchill, which prompts me to break my silence about the whole business.

Churchill's right to speak has its defenders among conservatives and libertarians (e.g., Stephen Bainbridge, Eugene Volokh, and FIRE). I agree fully that Churchill's right to speak shouldn't be abridged, though he must be prepared to pay the consequences of outrage, ostracism, and unbridled criticism for his assertion that those killed in the World Trade Center were not innocent civilians but "little Eichmanns."

But the cancellation of a speaking engagement at a university isn't an abridgment of speech. Neither Churchill nor anyone else has a right to speak on private property unless he is invited to do so. A university, after all, has the right to decide whom to invite and whom not to invite as a speaker. Suppose that instead of inviting Churchill to speak at Hamilton College, the Kirkland Project had invited a speaker who might actually have enlightened the student body with some facts instead of hateful opinion.* The world would be no wiser -- and the students of Hamilton would be better off in the bargain.

The real issue in this whole, overblown affair isn't Churchill's freedom of speech, which hasn't been abridged in the least. (He can stand in the middle of downtown Clinton, New York (the home of Hamilton College), and exercise his freedom of speech -- with police protection -- if feels compelled to do so.) The real issue is the university's right to decide how best to educate its students. Hamilton College was about to execute a bad decision and expose its students to a "professor" who has seems to have nothing to offer but vile opinions. Fortunately for the students, Hamilton's administration came to its senses. As William Klinkner, an associate professor of government at Hamilton, puts it:
"Colleges, if they choose to be a marketplace of ideas, have to be willing to bring in people who say pretty repugnant things." Nevertheless, he adds, "If I want to have someone come to class to talk about problems with the Treaty of Versailles, I don't have to bring in a Nazi."
Precisely. Educators are paid not only to educate but also to educate well. Perhaps the Churchill affair will serve as a reminder that gratuitous titillation isn't education.
* An unlikely event, given the Kirkland Project's agenda:
THE KIRKLAND PROJECT for the Study of Gender, Society and Culture is an on-campus organization committed to social justice, focusing on issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, as well as other facets of human diversity.
Favorite Posts: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech