Letter to the editor: Why the College should not ban speakers

Cheryl Shanks

Dear Editor,

            In 2015, many faculty at the University of Chicago agreed with, and signed, a statement advocating that the university not ban speakers. Faculty at other institutions have since voted to adopt similar statements, and one has been circulating among faculty at the College. I am among its signers. To some, signing signals disregard for the harm that hate speech inflicts on vulnerable people. I want here to outline my own reasons for making this commitment.

            First, to sign on to this statement is not to reject safe spaces. The College should allow for, and even provide, safe spaces. In fact, it does. That provision does not mean that the College itself, in entirety, should be a safe space.

            Second, banning speakers is the same as banning books. A speaker is just an essay with a podium. Sawyer library’s collection includes eight versions of the reactionary, racist film “Birth of a Nation,”three versions of Hitler’s Mein Kampfand scores of books discussing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, each of which contains a copy of this manifesto against the Jews. If we choose, we can access more repulsive propaganda via interlibrary loan. The third week of September each year is national banned books week, and several weeks ago the College and the local town libraries participated by defiantly displaying books that have been banned. I appreciate this display, and find it hard to see how a person can support free access to loathsome ideas in print but categorically reject their being spoken aloud.

            Third, specific people, by definition those in power, get to decide what is left alone and what is censored.It is naïve to believe that censorship, once allowed, will be wielded by the relatively powerless and vulnerable.That just seems foolish.

            We should respond to hateful speech and hateful speakers– but with politics rather than with law.Those like me who advocate free expression need to attend arenas in which people express nasty views, engage with them and stand up to them. It is not especially responsible to advocate for free expression of ideas without at least talking back, trying to call out the agendas and interests behind them. I believe that we– faculty and staff and students to whom this matters– should help students learn how to stand up for themselves rather than withdraw the College from the world.

            Yours truly,

            Cheryl Shanks, professor of political science