10 Speakers Who Have Been Deplatformed On College Campuses
In recent years, freedom of speech in America has come under assault in the public sphere. Though the guarantees of the First Amendment still offer strict legal protections to free speech, opponents of unfettered public discourse have made substantial efforts to silence speakers with whom they disagree through social, rather than legal, means. One of the of most prevalent methods for doing this is known as deplatforming, which is the act of cancelling a speaker’s engagement to prevent him or her from expressing unpopular views and opinions. A less formal, though far more common, version of deplatforming involves disruptive protests meant to shut down an event that cannot be cancelled ahead of time, making it impossible for the speaker to actually speak.
Deplatforming is predominantly employed on college campuses, where speakers of all political and ideological stripes are often invited to speak by various student groups. Though there are exceptions, the overwhelming majority of incidents of deplatforming at colleges and universities have involved conservative or libertarian speakers having their events cancelled or shut down by left-wing elements on campus.
The Crisis of Free Speech on College Campuses
The trend of deplatforming is only one component of a broader crisis of free speech at colleges and universities throughout America. With the rise of everything from safe spaces to small, specific zones to which free speech is actually supposed to be contained, the state of discourse in institutions of higher learning has deteriorated substantially in recent years. The disturbing trend against free speech is thoroughly reflected in studies of both student and faculty attitudes. According to a study conducted by the Knight Foundation, 53 percent of students believe that inclusion and diversity are more important than protecting free speech rights. The same study also found that 37 percent of students believed that it was acceptable to shout down controversial speakers, while 10 percent even believed that violence was an acceptable method to suppress speech in at least some instances. Among professors, the view is a bit more encouraging, with 69 percent preferring an educational environment that allows free speech, even at the risk of offending some students. The fact that nearly one-third of professors prefer limiting speech rights, however, is still cause for concern.
The number of colleges at which incidents of deplatforming and left-wing attacks on free speech have occurred is too long to list comprehensively in one place, but several prominent examples stand out. UC Berkeley, ironically a main progenitor of the free speech movement in the 1960s, has deplatformed several speakers and seen violent student protests against others over the last few years. Oregon’s Reed College recently restructured its enormously popular Humanities 110 course, a foundational class in Western literature and philosophy, in response to allegations that the course’s material was discriminatory against non-white students. Even Yale University, arguably one of the most acclaimed institutions in the world, has stooped to censoring potentially offensive images from books it has published, retroactively editing pieces of historical artwork displayed on campus and forbidding students to wear Halloween costumes that could be interpreted as culturally insensitive (no, that last one wasn’t a joke).
Contrary to popular belief, conservative speakers and thinkers aren’t the only ones raising concerns about the attack on free speech rights on modern campuses. Professor Jonathan Haidt, a moderate liberal social psychologist who teaches ethical leadership at New York University, has been among the leading voices calling for an end to censorship on college campuses. Heterodox Academy, an organization founded by Haidt, has undertaken the task of demonstrating the free speech crisis and its impacts through empirical data, as well as rallying professors and administrators to encourage freedom of speech in the classroom. Other professors who occupy the center-left have also begun to see the damage that radical leftist elements are doing to the state of discourse on campus, leading them to work together against restrictions on speech and expression.
Speakers Who Have Been Deplatformed
The individual speakers who have had their events cancelled by administrators or shut down by vociferous student protests fall at virtually every point of the political spectrum. From legitimately controversial speakers to those expressing ideas that would be deemed moderately conservative by the measures of any era of American history, colleges and universities have shut down representatives of virtually every possible political idea that falls even remotely to the right of center. In fact, some speakers whose sympathies tend to the left have seen their platforms pulled out from under them, simply by virtue of not leaning far enough left. Following are ten of the most prominent speakers who have been targeted by opponents of free speech.
A libertarian-leaning Orthodox Jew who completed his education at Harvard Law School, Ben Shapiro has been one of the most galvanizing figures in the debate over educational free speech policies. Having started his first book on the worrying homogeneity of opinion on campuses at 17, Shapiro has been an advocate of free speech for his entire adult life. His sharp criticisms of the culture of microaggressions and safe spaces that has arisen on college campuses caused California State University Los Angeles to cancel an event at which he was scheduled to speak in 2016. Shapiro showed up anyway, asserting his constitutional right to speak at a state school, and later had to be escorted out by police for his own safety after student protests became uncontrollable. Similar protests occurred at a Shapiro speaking event at UC Berkeley in 2017, but thanks to $600,000 spent on additional security for the evening, the event was uninterrupted.
In another incident at UC Berkeley that occurred in 2017, conservative television and radio personality and author Ann Coulter was forced to cancel her speaking event due to concerns about violent protests from both the student body and outside activists. Coulter’s numerous critics accuse her of being anti-feminist and encouraging misogyny, as well as being overly critical of Muslims and promoting a hard line on immigration policy. The university itself had been accused of revoking Ms. Coulter’s invitation, though it later made an official statement to the effect that it had initially attempted to reschedule the event and place it in a different venue, rather than cancel it altogether.
The suppression of speakers doesn’t stop at political commentators appearing on college campuses, as evidenced by the 2017 deplatforming of world-renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, known for his outspoken atheism and secular views, was barred from participating in an event organized by radio station KPFA, which is located in Berkeley, California, but which has no official ties to the city’s University of California branch campus. Professor Dawkins’ appearance was cancelled over accusations of anti-Islamic remarks he had made in the past, which the radio station alleged made him unsuitable to appear. Dawkins has repeatedly criticized the use of Islamic religious belief to inform lawmaking in Middle Eastern countries, a political philosophy known as Islamism. His remarks, however, have never been demonstrated to go beyond criticism of theocratic legal systems.
Perhaps the strangest single incident of deplatforming to date was the 2016 disinvitation of Jason Riley, a respected and prominent African-American journalist, from a speaking event at Virginia Tech on the grounds that his presence there would spark racial tensions on campus. Riley is best known for his recurring Upward Mobility column, which appears weekly in The Wall Street Journal. In both that column and his books, Riley has been an outspoken critic of traditional liberal welfare policies which, he argues, have actually contributed to disadvantaging black families in America. That position has earned Jason Riley multiple protests and a huge amount of vitriol from more liberal members of the African-American community. Protests against Mr. Riley continue to this day, with the two most recent examples having taken place at the University of Denver and the University of Colorado-Boulder law schools in March of 2018.
The University of Chicago is arguably the most pro-free speech university left in America, having clearly stated in 2016 its absolute commitment to academic freedom in all forms. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped students from trying to move against the university’s policies by shutting down controversial speakers with protests. The most prominent example of this occurred earlier in 2018, when a professor from the university’s Booth School of Economics invited former Breitbart editor and advisor to President Donald Trump Steve Bannon to speak on campus. Students and alumni rapidly revolted, leveling charges of racism and even outright fascism against Bannon. Though the University of Chicago maintains that Mr. Bannon is free to speak on campus at any time, the student backlash has thus far kept him away from the university, making it unclear whether his speaking engagement will ever occur.
Though America sees more deplatforming than most countries, the attack on free speech is far from a uniquely American problem. This was one of many lessons drawn from the shutting down of a 2017 event at Canada’s Ryerson University featuring noted conservative Professor Jordan Peterson. Peterson rose to fame after bucking the University of Toronto’s demands that faculty address some students with gender-neutral pronouns and arguing that the policy constituted a form of compelled speech. Peterson’s views on this and other issues have since earned him a reputation as transphobic and sexist among leftist detractors, and have also contributed to his meteoric ascent to being one of the most publicly recognized defenders of free speech in the world. It was presumably for these reasons that a threatening Facebook message was sent to Ryerson University regarding the event at which Professor Peterson was to speak. The event was quickly shut down, with the official reason offered being concern for the safety of the panelists and the audience.
Christina Hoff Sommers
As a feminist with generally libertarian views, Christina Hoff Sommers holds a rare political position that opens her up to extreme criticism from the more radical brand of feminism that predominates today. Sommers has spent a long career roundly critiquing modern feminist theory, particularly its embrace of a view of women as perpetual victims with little to no individual agency. Christina Hoff Sommers experienced her prominent deplatforming at Lewis and Clarke College in Oregon in March of 2018, when a small group of students attending her speech began a loud and disruptive protest that effectively shut down the event. During the course of a protest consisting largely of leftist slogans that had little to do with the content of Sommers’ speech, protestors accused her of holding fascist views. The college itself was also subject to the ire of the protestors, who had previously requested that the event be officially cancelled to suppress Sommers’ views.
The famous author of the controversial book The Bell Curve, political scientist and conservative commentator Charles Murray is no stranger to controversy. Charles Murray has spoken extensively about the economic state of white Americans and having repeatedly criticized the welfare state over his career. In March of 2017, though, an event at Middlebury College in Vermont featuring Murray would demonstrate the worst that leftist extremism on campuses has to offer. After having been invited by a student group called the American Enterprise Club, Murray’s speech was interrupted almost as soon as it began by protestors accusing Murray of extreme forms of racism. The event was moved to a smaller room, where Murray and a Middlebury professor who was to ask him a series of prepared questions continued the event in the absence of a large audience. When Murray and the professor left, they were attacked by protestors, who even went so far as to jump on and rock Murray’s car after he had gotten into it. The Middlebury professor, Allison Stranger, was injured and later had to be put into a neck brace at a nearby hospital. Professor Stranger would later offer a detailed version of events, indicating that she feared for her own life at the hands of the protestors, despite herself being a liberal whose views do not match those of Murray.
Former CIA Director John Brennan stands out from many other speakers who have been deplatformed by leftists on campus in that he was a serving member of a left-leaning Democratic administration at the time. In 2016, Brennan was invited to participate in a discussion at the University of Pennsylvania. The event went as planned for about 15 minutes, after which protest groups began heckling Brennan from the audience over CIA activities in the Middle East, particularly predator drone strikes. After multiple attempts were made to restore order, the event was concluded early with little of the planned subject material having actually been covered.
British commentator and former Brietbart Senior Editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who unashamedly has described himself as a provocateur in interviews, is likely the single most frequently disinvited speaker working today. In 2016, Yiannopoulos personally accounted for a quarter of all disinvitations to speak on campus in America. Yiannopoulos has spoken extensively about virtually every regressive tendency of the modern left and has been particularly critical of third-wave feminism. As a result, Mr. Yiannopoulos has been accused of everything from racism to sexism to homophobia (the latter despite being openly gay) by his left-wing critics. Particularly prominent among Yiannopoulos’ experiences with deplatforming was a February 2017 event at UC Berkeley that was cancelled after protests against the event degenerated into violent riots. The riots, perpetrated by loosely-affiliated leftist groups associated with the Antifa and Black Bloc movements, resulted in six injuries and more than $100,000 in damage. Yiannopoulos returned to Berkeley the following September for a 15-minute appearance. In order to prevent a repeat of the February incident, the university spent $800,000 on additional security.
Though the phenomenon of deplatforming and the broader trend of suppression of speech is most common on college campuses, it is unlikely that they will long remain confined to institutions of higher learning. As graduates move out into the world, they carry with them the ideas promulgated by their professors, their colleges and their fellow students. At this point in our history, those ideas include a supreme intolerance for dissenting views and a disregard for the free speech rights of others.
Public discourse in America has already shifted from open, respectful debate among disagreeing parties to a perpetual shouting match. If we cannot reverse the trends that now threaten freedom of speech and academic inquiry on America’s college campuses, there is little reason to believe that the state of public discourse will improve in the coming years. Students, professors, administrators, parents and the alumni who provide schools with much of their funding must work together to reassert the role of universities as environments in which people with disparate ideas can encounter one another and discuss their positions freely. To quote Cardinal John Henry Newman’s landmark work on the subject of higher education, The Idea of a University, “A university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society…” If we are to return to this lofty goal for higher education, it is clear that there is a very long and difficult road ahead, and that that road begins with reaffirming the rights of all to express their views within an open academic environment.