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Conversative Voices Silenced by Students at UMass-Amherst

Here’s a great op-ed by Robert Shibley that can also be found here on the Boston Globe website. Thanks, John Cavanaugh, for letting us know about this article, which has a number of implications for our field.

Why no one should be silenced on campus

By Robert L. Shibley  |  April 9, 2009

WHEN CONSERVATIVE columnist Don Feder spoke at UMass-Amherst last month, his speech was cut short by a large group of students whose noisy and disruptive antics drove Feder off the lectern midway through his speech. As one UMass student wrote after the event, “I am embarrassed of the way my fellow classmates have chosen to express their discontent.” She should be – but she should also know that she is not the only one who is due for some embarrassment.

America’s campuses are seeing a growing movement by students to shut off debate by organized groups and silence speakers with whom they disagree. Rather than engage in the give-and-take that should be characteristic of the university as a “marketplace of ideas,” these students have decided that opposing views don’t even bear hearing. And all too often they are aided by administrators whose policies reward hecklers rather than students who wish to engage in civil debate and dialogue.

UMass is one of those campuses. After word got out that students were planning to protest Feder’s speech, the UMass-Amherst Police Department pressured Feder’s hosts, the Republican Club, into paying nearly three times as much in security costs for the event as they had planned. Of course, the student hecklers disrupted the event anyway with no interference by the police.

Feder’s hecklers were thereby handed a double victory by the university – not only did they manage to silence Feder, but they also succeeded in forcing their political enemies on campus to pay a huge security bill for little return. This tactic was so successful it’s hard to imagine that the same UMass students won’t do it again, and it’s unlikely that the lesson has been lost on students who sympathize with Feder.

The real casualty of the heckling “arms race” fostered by such policies will be the possibility of getting a truly liberal education. The more violent and disruptive the threatened protest, the higher the security costs will be demanded of the host, giving those most willing to be violent the strongest veto over campus discourse.

At the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work, we tell students that if they have gone through four years of college without ever being offended or having their beliefs challenged, they should ask for their money back. John Stuart Mill, in his 1859 treatise “On Liberty,” observed that nobody is infallible, and that an opinion we detest might be right, or, even if wrong, might “contain a portion of truth” that we would otherwise have missed. Might Feder’s opinions have contained that “portion of truth?” UMass students may never know.

Charging a higher security fee for controversial speeches is not just unwise; on a public university campus it is also unconstitutional. In Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992), the Supreme Court struck down a county ordinance that permitted the local government to set varying fees for events based upon how much police protection they believed an event would need. The Court stated that “[s]peech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.” Public universities must meet the same First Amendment standard.

FIRE has asked UMass to revoke its excessive security fee for Feder’s speech – so far, without response. However, other campuses have begun to address the problem. After FIRE protested the University of California at Berkeley’s decision to charge a student group $3,000 to host a speech about the Arab-Israeli conflict, Berkeley agreed to reduce the fee to the normal amount and to use only viewpoint-neutral criteria to determine such fees going forward. FIRE has also asked the University of Colorado at Boulder to revoke a similar fee charged for an event featuring controversial professors William Ayers and Ward Churchill. CU-Boulder has yet to respond.

Berkeley has it right. The First Amendment has made America unique in the world in its respect for the rights of controversial speakers – some of whom, inevitably, turn out to be right. In a free society like ours, universities should serve as the ultimate “free speech zones,” where anyone’s ideas can be examined and discussed. Eliminating the “heckler’s veto” is the only way to ensure that the nation’s universities can continue to serve this vital function.

Robert L. Shibley, an attorney, is vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. This saddens me terribly, and as a way of doing something constructive with my emotional distress, I want to invite comment on two ideas: 1) the willful failure to use (or maybe it’s only the not-so-benign neglect of) available social technologies; and 2) the need for our community to do more than public/civic engagement.

    Willful failure to use available technology. The situation described in this article is eerily similar to others that happened on this same campus (UMass Amherst) in 1985. With sponsorship by the NCCJ (then the National Coalition of Christians and Jews), a group of us argued that we had “enough” controversial speakers on campus and developed an innovative way of bringing together spokespersons for different sides of controversial issues in a carefully formatted structure than enabled them and the people in the audience to speak their minds, to listen respectfully as those with whom they disagreed spoke theirs, and to engage in conversation that not only identified common ground but explored – with curiosity – their differences. We called it “the Kaleidoscope Project” and conducted what seemed at the time a lot (15? 20?) of them between 1985 and 1990.

    The Kaleidoscope Project had high visibility on campus (e.g., the Chancellor participated in one of the events and the leadership team included the University Ombudsperson, several department chairs, etc), was highly successful, and was described in the first chapter of Pearce and Littlejohn’s (1997) Moral Conflict: When Social Worlds Collide and in the instructional video that I produced called Communication and Democracy.

    Is that enough to document that there is “available technology” to create a situation in which it is possible, as those of us in the Kaleidoscope Project put it, to “discuss the undiscussable”?

    Then why, in the name of all that is holy, is the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, of all places, dealing with these issues in such unproductive ways?

    I agree with Shibley that “universities should serve as the ultimate “free speech zones,” where anyone’s ideas can be examined and discussed” and that charging sponsoring organizations a fee to cover additional security forces is a crude and ineffective response. (He says it may be illegal, and I’ll let him speak to that). He continues, “Eliminating the “heckler’s veto” is the only way to ensure that the nation’s universities can continue to serve this vital function.” OK, but how should we “eliminate the heckler’s veto”? There is a way, and the Kaleidoscope process did it while dealing with issues at least as controversial as the one that sparked the current flap. So:
    • Is the issue one of institutional memory? Did they forget about the Project?
    • Is the issue one of our learned inability to “see” patterns of communication, so that we distrust attempts to create situations in which dialogue and deliberation occur?
    • Is the issue one of insufficient attention, so that the easiest response (“add more police”) seems appropriate?
    • Has capitalism colonized our thinking so much that the first and apparently only way that we know to shape patterns of social behavior is to use financial inducements or sanctions?

    This brings me to the need to do more than public/civic engagement. Like many in our community, I’m thrilled that the Obama Administration has opened a door so that “civic engagement” can move, as Carolyn Lukensmeyer put it, from something outside government pushed into it to something that government pulls into it. Whew! What a relief. And I’ve been a minor participant in crafting the “Seven Principles of Public Engagement” document that will enable us to speak with one voice into that opportunity. I am not dismissing the importance of that good work when I say, with respect, that it is not enough.

    Pay even the slightest attention to talk radio, cable “news” networks (e.g., Fox News and MSNBC), and even the speeches and interviews by members of congress about issues as important as economic recovery, health care, immigration policy, and national defense. My interpretation is that we have a persistent “moral conflict” in our country. As Stephen Littlejohn and I use that term in our book by that name, these are conflicts in which “more” communication drives persons further apart rather than closer together, because each side truly believes that the most sacred, precious, deeply avowed beliefs and practices of the other are ignorant, morally repugnant, treasonous, dangerous, or downright silly. Our research shows that there is a natural progression of communication in those situations that might begin with civil discourse in which each side exposes to the other that which they hold most precious and important. If the response is what psychologists call “disconfirming” (as it is likely to be in these situations), each side then becomes less likely to present their honest reasoning and beliefs. The communication patterns move from 1) the expression of rich and honest stories; to 2) the use of “safer” anecdotes; and finally to 3) the use of slogans designed more to antagonize the enemy and galvanize supporters. Hence the use of terms like “socialist” and “fascist” in current discourse by conservatives.

    In addition to civic engagement, our country needs the application of social skills (both practical wisdom and technology) that interrupt these patterns of communication emerging from moral conflict, and transform those patterns into something more constructive. In one way of saying this, if we are truly successful in bringing all stakeholders into a “civic engagement” process, we will have brought into the tent the moral conflict now raging with like-minded participants on talk radio and dueling cable "news" programs. If this doesn't happen, then we don't have all the relevant stakeholders in the room; but if it does, then what do we do?

    Call this “something else” dialogue or whatever, but it has to be a sufficiently powerful intervention to enable participants to give up their normal ways of talking to each other and to the designated “other” and take on board abnormal forms of discourse. If this works well, it reverses the sequence described above: the public discourse moves from slogans back to anecdotes and then to full, rich stories. In the process, participants reconnect with the richness of their own tradition and enlarge their minds to include stories with which they do not agree and should not agree. In this kind of process, “common ground” is not only found, but is made.

    I really believe that we now know a lot about how to work with situations like this. To assess whether I'm hopelessly deluded or simply well-informed, take a look at the documents posted in the "reading room" on http://www.transformingcommunication.org.

    Big finish: Two years ago, I was part of an under-the-radar event that tried to tell currently-serving members of congress about the existence of our community and the expertise we have developed. We said that our ways of working constituted an important and under-utilized national resource that could help in lots of ways. Sadly, the ratio of effort-to-effect was about 100-to-zero. I had the feeling that (paraphrasing an old maxim) we (our community of practice) have invented a better mousetrap and, far from beating a path to our door, the world has slammed the door in our faces.

    I started this response by saying that I was saddened that my old institution, UMass at Amherst, has failed to use available technology for dealing with controversial speakers and I’ve whimpered about other bruises collected during the past 25 years. Now able to set that aside, a realistic appraisal is that we (as a community) have a wealth of resources (intellectual capital and well-worked out forms of practices). The “Research and Development” department of our community has done well; we need some additional strength in “Sales and Marketing.”

    Never before have we known so much about transforming unproductive patterns of communication, and never before have we needed so much to make those transformations.

  2. This saddens me terribly, and as a way of doing something constructive with my emotional distress, I want to invite comment on two ideas: 1) the willful failure to use (or maybe it’s only the not-so-benign neglect of) available social technologies; and 2) the need for our community to do more than public/civic engagement.

    Willful failure to use available technology. This exact situation happened on this exact same campus (UMass Amherst) in 1985. With sponsorship by the NCCJ (then the National Coalition of Christians and Jews), a group of us argued that we had “enough” controversial speakers on campus and developed an innovative way of bringing together spokespersons for different sides of controversial issues in a carefully formatted structure than enabled them and the people in the audience to speak their minds, to listen respectfully as those with whom they disagreed spoke theirs, and to engage in conversation that not only identified common ground but explored – with curiosity – their differences. We called it “the Kaleidoscope Project” and conducted what seemed at the time a lot (15? 20?) of them between 1985 and 1990.

    The Kaleidoscope Project had high visibility on campus (e.g., the Chancellor participated in one of the events and the leadership team included the University Ombudsperson, several department chairs, etc), was highly successful, and was described in the first chapter of Pearce and Littlejohn’s (1997) Moral Conflict: When Social Worlds Collide and in the instructional video that I produced called Communication and Democracy.

    Is that enough to document that there is “available technology” to create a situation in which it is possible, as those of us in the Kaleidoscope Project put it, to “discuss the undiscussable”?

    Then why, in the name of all that is holy, is the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, of all places, dealing with these issues in such unproductive ways?

    I agree with Shibley that “universities should serve as the ultimate “free speech zones,” where anyone’s ideas can be examined and discussed” and that charging sponsoring organizations a fee to cover additional security forces is a crude and ineffective response. (He says it may be illegal, and I’ll let him speak to that). He continues, “Eliminating the “heckler’s veto” is the only way to ensure that the nation’s universities can continue to serve this vital function.” OK, but how should we “eliminate the heckler’s veto”? There is a way, and the Kaleidoscope process did it while dealing with issues at least as controversial as the one that sparked the current flap. So:
    • Is the issue one of institutional memory? Did they forget about the Project?
    • Is the issue one of our learned inability to “see” patterns of communication, so that we distrust attempts to create situations in which dialogue and deliberation occur?
    • Is the issue one of insufficient attention, so that the easiest response (“add more police”) seems appropriate?
    • Has capitalism colonized our thinking so much that the first and apparently only way that we know to shape patterns of social behavior is to use financial inducements or sanctions?

    This brings me to the need to do more than public/civic engagement. Like many in our community, I’m thrilled that the Obama Administration has opened a door so that “civic engagement” can move, as Carolyn Lukensmeyer put it, from something outside government pushed on them to something that government pulls into it. Whew! What a relief. And I’ve been a minor participant in crafting the “Seven Principles of Public Engagement” document that will enable us to speak with one voice into that opportunity. I am not dismissing the importance of that good work when I say, with respect, that it is not enough.

    Pay even the slightest attention to talk radio, cable “news” networks (e.g., Fox News and MSNBC), and even the speeches and interviews by members of congress about issues as important as economic recovery, health care, immigration policy, and national defense. My interpretation is that we have a persistent “moral conflict” in our country. As Stephen Littlejohn and I use that term in our book by that name, these are conflicts in which “more” communication drives persons further apart rather than closer together, because each side truly believes that the most sacred, precious, deeply avowed beliefs and practices of the other are ignorant, morally repugnant, treasonous, dangerous, or downright silly. Our research shows that there is a natural progression of communication in those situations that might begin with civil discourse in which each side exposes to the other that which they hold most precious and important. If the response is what psychologists call “disconfirming” (as it is likely to be in these situations), each side then becomes less likely to present their honest reasoning and beliefs. The communication patterns move from 1) the expression of rich and honest stories; to 2) the use of “safer” anecdotes; and finally to 3) the use of slogans designed more to antagonize the enemy and galvanize supporters. Hence the use of terms like “socialist” and “fascist” in current discourse by conservatives.

    In addition to civic engagement, our country needs the application of social skills (both practical wisdom and technology) that interrupt these patterns of communication emerging from moral conflict, and transform those patterns into something more constructive. In one way of saying this, if we are truly successful in bringing all stakeholders into a “civic engagement” process, we will have the moral conflict inside the tent. And then what do we do?

    Call this “something else” dialogue or whatever, but it has to be a sufficiently powerful intervention to enable participants to give up their normal ways of talking to each other and to the designated “other” and take on board abnormal forms of discourse. If this works well, it reverses the sequence described above: the public discourse moves from slogans back to anecdotes and then to full, rich stories. In the process, participants reconnect with the richness of their own tradition and enlarge their minds to include stories with which they do not agree and should not agree. In this kind of process, “common ground” is not only found, but is made.

    Big finish: Two years ago, I was part of an under-the-radar event that tried to tell currently-serving members of congress about the existence of our community and the expertise we have developed. We said that our ways of working constituted an important and under-utilized national resource that could help in lots of ways. Sadly, the ratio of effort-to-effect was about 100-to-zero. I had the feeling that (paraphrasing an old maxim) we (our community of practice) have invented a better mousetrap and, far from beating a path to our door, the world has slammed the door in our faces.

    I started this response by saying that I was saddened that my old institution, UMass at Amherst, has failed to use available technology for dealing with controversial speakers and I’ve wallowed in my bruises collected during other situations. Having done that, a realistic appraisal is that we (as a community) have a wealth of resources (intellectual capital and well-worked out forms of practices). The “Research and Development” department of our community has done well; we need some additional strength in “Sales and Marketing.”

  3. a UMass student says:

    Very distressing and very true. Indeed, I agreed with virtually every syllable… until the last paragraph. Why, oh, why again the ethnocentric "America is unique" myth? Why pull up the entertaining legend that this one country with its flawed constitution (Humans wrote it! Humans who didn't reject slavery, who didn't believe in women's right to vote, etc. etc. etc.! And how many more "amendments", aka corrections, will the constitution undergo?) is somehow superior to the rest of the world? The belief that controversial views should be heard is alive and kicking in many countries on this globe. Funny enough, none of those other countries claims that they are the only one respecting opposing views. If America is unique, then only in its blissful ignorance of what happens beyond its borders. *That* indeed would warrant quite some dialogue and deliberation…

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