A Steve Bannon debate? Sign us up

If business Prof. Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago sells tickets for his planned Steve Bannon debate, put us down for a pair at least. Why? Because it will be an interesting event with the former chief strategist to President Donald Trump. And because the university should be supported for its principled defense of free expression.

Not everyone at the university is happy that Bannon, the right-wing media figure, has been invited to campus. There was a small anti-Bannon student demonstration last week, plus an open letter to university President Robert Zimmer from some professors offended by the invitation.

If this involved practically any other college in America, we'd be concerned the administration might buckle under the protests, and concoct some reason to disinvite Bannon to preserve harmony. There's a pattern in place, from Berkeley to DePaul and beyond, of universities squelching controversial speaker events, especially those involving people on the political right. It's part of the larger cultural movement of trigger warnings and safe spaces.

Thankfully, the University of Chicago thinks differently. The school has a long tradition of valuing free speech and thought, recognizing that a university is — wait for it — a place of ideas and learning. How do you learn to analyze the world, and decide what to believe, unless you're exposed to a diversity of opinion and thought? Even more important, what lesson do students absorb if a college bans disagreeable ideas? To always carry earmuffs? In the real world, nasty thoughts and words abound. Civilized adults cope and respond.

Zingales, a professor at the university's Booth School of Business, was doing his job when he invited Bannon to participate in a planned debate with an expert on the economic benefits of globalization and immigration.

No question, in our view, Bannon is a disreputable character who used Breitbart to fan the flames of white nationalism. When Trump failed to condemn neo-Nazis after the Charlottesville, Va., riot, you could see Bannon's ugly influence. Yet this is not a reason to keep Bannon from campus. His ideas are extreme but not irrelevant. He helped run the White House. He and his political movement should be understood. That requires engaging and challenging him.

The students who want Bannon disinvited will learn over time the value of free expression. The professors who oppose the event are wrongheaded. Their anti-Bannon perspective is legitimate but not their logic. "His presence on campus sends a chilling message not only to students, staff, and faculty at the University, but also to the young people who attend the University of Chicago Charter School and Laboratory School and to the primarily black neighbors who surround the university," they wrote.

That argument confuses an invitation with an endorsement. The professors should make their opinions known but recognize this is a teaching moment.


Star Tribune Publisher and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith serves on the University of Chicago's Board of Trustees.