Responding to Controversial Speakers

Responding to Controversial Speakers

Responding to Controversial Speakers

April 30, 2008

I write in response to the events of last evening, in which an invited speech by author Ryan Sorba was disrupted by loud protests and ultimately did not go forward.

The event was planned and funded by the Smith Republicans, which, like every student organization, has the right to invite speakers of its choice. The decision to halt his presentation was made jointly by public safety, student affairs and the Republican club leadership. There were serious concerns about overcrowding, audience and speaker safety, and facility damage. On a pragmatic level, after about 10 minutes the speaker could not be heard.

Whether or not one agrees with a speaker, academic freedom is a core value of colleges and universities, one in which I believe strongly. Such freedom entails the right for duly constituted campus organizations to invite speakers to campus who have controversial views, with which people may disagree or even find reprehensible.

While I understand the strong feelings Mr. Sorba’s writings elicit, I am disappointed that some members of our community chose not to uphold our own commitment to freedom of expression. As clearly affirmed in Smith’s statement of academic freedom and freedom of expression, “Once members of the Smith community extend an invitation, others may not abridge a speaker’s freedom of expression because they dislike or oppose the speaker, find her or his ideas noxious, or perceive the speaker to be associated with policies or practices believed to be erroneous or even evil.” We are investigating possible violations of college policy, including the policy on the conduct of demonstrations and protests.

When faced with the visit of a controversial speaker, our challenge as a community is to reaffirm our commitment to teaching and learning. Hearing the views of someone with whom you disagree affords the opportunity to sharpen one’s own counterarguments, displaying the weaknesses in their reasoning or evidence. Alternatively, we can boycott speakers whose views we find offensive.

At 8 p.m. tonight, at the Academy of Music, Smith is offering a free public screening of Freeheld, the Oscar-winning documentary by Cynthia Wade ’89 that chronicles a lesbian couple’s struggle for legal and property rights. It stands in contrast to Mr. Sorba’s views of a “born-gay hoax” -- and both perspectives, whether one finds them compelling or offensive, fall within Smith’s commitment to free expression of ideas and values.

Carol T. Christ