A campus conundrum: Should all be heard?

  • Article by: RANDY FURST and JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 9, 2007 - 12:13 AM

The decision by St. Thomas not to invite Desmond Tutu to speak reflects a recurring tension at colleges nationwide.

On the University of St. Thomas campus on Monday, activists unfurled a large banner: "Let Tutu Speak!"

By Monday evening, St. Thomas' president, the Rev. Dennis Dease, had received more than 2,500 e-mails from a national Jewish peace group urging him to reverse his decision not to invite Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu to campus.

"There is an overwhelming majority of students who are appalled by this," said Stephanie Edquist, 21, editor of the student newspaper. "Students are saying. 'Who else is going to be restricted from coming to campus?'"

The escalating controversy reflects a tension at colleges nationwide, one pitting free speech and academic freedom against views some find objectionable.

Last month, Columbia University's decision to allow Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak drew protesters. Speakers with strong political opinions -- from Ann Coulter on the right to Michael Moore on the left -- regularly draw ire on campuses. Many religious-affiliated universities have taken heat for speakers who hold positions that, some say, go against particular doctrines.

What has changed of late has been the reaction of some colleges and universities. There is a growing trend, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), of schools inviting speakers and then un-inviting them after opposition groups turn up the heat.

St. Thomas never invited Tutu to speak, but declined to approve an invitation as part of the PeaceJam, an event the school has hosted for the past four years. PeaceJam officials have now arranged to have the South African archbishop and activist speak at its April event, which will be held at Metropolitan State University.

St. Thomas officials said that local Jewish leaders they consulted felt that Tutu had made remarks offensive to the Jewish people in a 2002 speech about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

Academic freedom

But AAUP president Cary Nelson, an English professor at the University of Illinois, contends that allowing speakers with varying viewpoints is essential to academic freedom.

"If people on a campus are willing to stand back and tolerate speech from groups they oppose, they can win their own freedom to invite their own speaker the next time around," Nelson said.

Last month, the AAUP issued an open letter about the importance of free speech and the marketplace of ideas on a university campus.

"You fold on one kind of speaker and then there's no limits," Nelson said. "If you start caving, where are you going to draw the line? How can you draw a line? Our educational system works best when there is a tolerance of a wide range of views on campus."

One thing that is often lost, Nelson said, is that inviting someone to speak is not the same as endorsing what they have to say.

That's part of why Nelson called St. Thomas' decision "pathetic."I'm not in personal agreement with everything Desmond Tutu has said and done in his career, but a more distinguished figure to bring to a university campus is hard to imagine.

"You want to hear Tutu because he's more than just a national figure, but an international figure, and it's exciting to see people with that kind of influence and ask them questions and interact with them."

Gerald Rinehart, the vice provost for student affairs at the University of Minnesota, said the state's largest school has a pretty open policy when it comes to speakers.

"In general, the way to respond to speech you don't agree with is with more speech, not by silencing or trying to avoid that point of view," Rinehart said.

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