Tutu, Coulter, Ahmadinejad — Who Speaks?

Should the University of St. Thomas have allowed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak on campus?

And, from a reputation point of view, what should St. Thomas do now? Change its mind?

University VP Doug Hennes, a longtime journalist who has done communications for St. Thomas for years (and, full disclosure, who edited the first story I ever wrote as a reporter), said the university is considering a forum “…to talk about the issues that have been raised so far…”

St. Thomas got a lot of flak for a 2005 speech by conservative shrieker Ann Coulter that president Dennis Dease later said “went far beyond the bounds of what is commonly accepted as civil discourse.”

My take — commonly accepted civil discourse is not what universities should be about. Students, and all of us, need to hear some outrageous discourse and dig in and figure out for themselves — ourselves — what’s outrageous and what’s well-founded. (Full disclosure again, I teach as an adjunct at St. Thomas.) College shouldn’t shelter students; it should provoke learning.

The forum Hennes mentions is a good idea — let’s talk about what kind of speech should be part of a university experience. But the forum idea would seem less tepid and defensive if St. Thomas hadn’t already said no thanks to a Nobel prize winner.

What do you think?

–Bruce Benidt

6 thoughts on “Tutu, Coulter, Ahmadinejad — Who Speaks?

  1. The Analyst says:

    The Tutu flap has to do with same old anti-free-speech threat of the pro-Israel lobby. Let it be said that Palestinians are mistreated by Israel and that Palestinians deserve what they get. This is so tiresome.

    Remember the credo of academia: First do not offend (anyone but conservatives)

  2. When I was a student at St. Thomas, there were plenty of people making plenty of stupid decisions that I’m sure many of them wished they could undo. That said, it’s still a great place — like most colleges are — for the very reason Bruce explains: Don’t shelter the students. Give them the world and let them decide what they want to keep, fix, ignore, laugh at.

    I suppose this most recent event could serve as an example: I hope St. Thomas doesn’t put on a facade of infallibility — the pompous “we said no, we meant it, and were right in the first place.” I hope they use this opportunity to have a legitimate discussion not only about Tutu but about how a university should conduct itself, about who and what is important, about who (if anyone) should be “answered to,” and about fessing up to making mistakes and learning from them.

  3. If schools cannot remain objective enough to allow speakers, then we really are doomed.

    Since St. Thomas is a private school, I don’t rightly think free speech can be used as any sort of argument here. As far as I can tell, free speech does not apply to private property. But that is neither here nor there.

    The point is that schools should allow anybody to speak so long as it is educational in nature. In other words, it would probably be a bad idea to invite people who are out to promote a cause or recruit people into anything. However, if people want to speak on topics and students want to listen and interact (in a civilized manner) then so be it. School should be one place where this sort of thing is allowed without question.

    Shame on St. Thomas for this action. At no time should it be acceptable to choose their speakers based on their political correctness or current popularity with the masses. As I said about the Columbia fiasco, there should be no reason to let him speak but it was absolutely unacceptable for the president of the school to berate the guest that he invited. It was unprofessional and lacked any sort of objectivity, which a major university should display towards any person of interest regardless of who they are or what they have done.

    Anyway, thanks for the great article, Bruce!

  4. Free speech can’t be used in a legal sense, as a mandate, but in principle, shouldn’t everyone agree that free speech is a good thing — even if they don’t *have to*?

  5. Yes, free speech is a good thing. It’s a great thing. But remember that free speech simply means that congress cannot limit your speech. It is not something that should be abused or hidden behind every time somebody disagrees with how something is being handled. Private property means that you are under the jurisdiction of that property owner. You cannot come into my house and say whatever you please and call it free speech.

    While I agree that free speech is a good thing even if they don’t have to I would never infringe on the right to limit speech on private property. Without that most basic of rights, what good is private property? It is all about using good and common sense.

  6. Understood. But I’m trying to get at a second understanding of “free speech.” One is the constitutional view, which, as you say, doesn’t do me much good when I come into your house.

    But I believe in a greater free speech. That I as an individual shouldn’t limit what anyone wants to say.

    A free speech, in either sense, isn’t something to hide behind. It’s something to embrace.

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