When Conservative College Students Cancel Campus Speeches

Should they or shouldn’t they? At UCLA, conservative students invited Milo Yiannopoulos to campus. A conservative professor advised them against it. His reasons for doing so highlight another fundamental question buried beneath our campus-free-speech shouting match.

milo yiannopolous

A “legitimate” conservative? Or just a “despicable asshole”?

Like everyone else, we at ILYBYGTH have been pondering questions of campus free speech lately. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH will recall, last week we wondered if arch-creationist Ken Ham could legitimately be disinvited from an Oklahoma university. Then we wondered if conservative student groups could be forced to accept leaders who don’t agree with them.

The issues from UCLA might seem vastly different at first. The College Republicans had issued a speaking invitation to right-wing bomb-thrower Milo. He planned to talk on the topic, “Ten Things I Hate About Mexico.” In an open letter published at Weekly Standard, one of their few conservative faculty mentors, Gabriel Rossman, advised them to cancel the invitation, for conservative reasons. And they did.

Why?

Professor Rossman condemned Milo as nothing but—using the words of Charles Murray—“a despicable asshole.” If UCLA conservatives were really dedicated to promoting conservative ideas and principles, inviting Milo was a bad idea. As Rossman put it,

You need to ask yourselves, what is your goal as an organization? If you’re in it for the lulz and just want to see the world burn, then I guess go ahead and bring in a vapid provocateur.

But if your mission is to spread conservative ideas, you should recognize that hosting Yiannopoulos will only render your organization and our ideas toxic.

Prof. Rossman’s advice—which the students heeded—raises another central underlying question in our debates over campus free speech. Last week in these pages, Agellius noted that the real question was not just creationism or homosexuality or nationalism. The real question, he wrote, was this:

It’s all about who gets to define “discrimination” isn’t it?

If Ken Ham’s version of Christianity is considered ipso facto discriminatory, then it makes some sense that he wouldn’t be invited to speak at a school dedicated to fighting against anti-homosexual discrimination. But if it isn’t, then it doesn’t.

Prof. Rossman’s advice raises a related question. He encourages UCLA’s conservative students to invite provocative conservative speakers. He lauded the decision to bring “War on Cops” author Heather MacDonald to campus. As he explained,

I can understand why some people were offended by Heather Mac Donald’s ideas when she spoke on campus last year. But reasonable people can disagree about whether all Americans, and especially African Americans, on net benefit from aggressive policing. More to the point, Mac Donald expresses her pro-police position without animus, so sponsoring her talk was an entirely legitimate and honorable thing to do.

Milo is different, Rossman thinks. His goal is only to push leftist students into vulgar displays of coercive thuggery. Rossman’s against it; against the entire “epater les SJWs performance art model” that Milo represents. [Editor’s note: SJW = “Social Justice Warrior.”]

We might say that Professor Rossman considered some so-called conservative speakers beyond the pale of legitimacy. Did College Republicans have the right to invite him? Rossman says yes. But was it good conservative strategy to do so? Rossman says no.

The central question, though, is not about Milo or Ken Ham or any single speaking invitation. The central question, it seems to me—following Agellius—is this: Who decides what “extremism” and “legitimacy” are?

Is it “illegitimate” to oppose same-sex marriage? The Oklahoma student protesters said yes. Ken Ham says no.

Is it “extreme” to deride Mexico? To try to provoke UCLA students into wilder and wilder displays of speech-blocking ferocity? Professor Rossman says yes. The College Republicans, apparently, agreed.

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Anti-Semitism at UCLA and the Anti-Christian University

Can a qualified student be barred from a student organization because she is Jewish? That is the awkward debate from UCLA that has attracted national attention recently. Here at ILYBYGTH, we have to ask a different awkward question: How is this debate different from the one about conservative evangelicals on campus? UCLA’s student leaders have apologized for the anti-Semitic slant of this incident, but many universities have intentionally de-recognized Christian organizations due to their Christian beliefs.

As the New York Times reported, Rachel Beyda’s confirmation hearing on February 10 turned into a painful debate about her Judaism and her affiliation with campus Jewish groups. Beyda is a sophomore pre-law student, hoping for a place on the student judicial council. At the February 10 meeting of the Undergraduate Students Association Council, her qualifications were questioned. One councilwoman asked Beyda,

Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community … given that recently … [inaudible] has been surrounding cases of conflict of interest, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view … [inaudible]?

Eventually, Beyda was voted in, but the agonizing back-and-forth about Judaism and bias has caused the university and the student group to apologize. They had not meant to imply that Jewish students have a special sort of bias; they did not mean to say that Jewish students have divided loyalties. Such ideas, they affirmed later, have a long and ugly history in American history.

As the New York Times points out, this sort of anti-Jewish attitude has become more common on college campuses, largely due to protest against Israel’s politics. The Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement in support of Palestinian rights has attracted widespread support among college leftists. It has become increasingly difficult for students to separate their anti-Israel ideas from anti-Semitic ones.

As the New York Times’s Adam Nagourney writes, this incident

has set off an anguished discussion of how Jews are treated, particularly in comparison with other groups that are more typically viewed as victims of discrimination, such as African-Americans and gays and lesbians.

What about the anti-evangelical bias of many universities? As we’ve seen here at ILYBYGTH, evangelical groups such as Intervarsity Christian Fellowship have been de-recognized at many pluralist colleges, including the Cal State system.

First, a few caveats: I’m no evangelical myself. I’m not asking this question as an apologist for conservative Christianity. Indeed, I vehemently disagree with most conservative evangelical political and theological positions. Nor am I unaware of the fact that these are different situations. I understand that Intervarsity has been derecognized not because of its ethnic background, but because of its discriminatory beliefs. Intervarsity members are not barred from leadership in campus activities because they might have “divided loyalties,” to use the ugly rhetoric of the recent UCLA discussion. Rather, the group as a whole is pushed out because it does not allow non-evangelicals to take leadership positions in its own group.

Having said all that, I think the Intervarsity case is another prime example of the ways “discrimination” is often used in conflicting and short-sighted ways on today’s college campuses. The student council members at UCLA insisted that they did not mean to imply that Jewish people somehow could not be full members of the university community. In short, the student-council members suffered from an overzealous interpretation of discrimination. Some council members apparently believed that there was something “discriminatory” about being Jewish.

Similarly, Intervarsity has been de-recognized because its leadership policy is discriminatory. It really is. Only those who affirm Intervarsity’s statement of faith can be leaders. This rules out students engaged in active homosexual relationships, not to mention Jewish students, Muslims, Catholics, and even liberal Protestants.

The awkward result, of course, is that Intervarsity itself has been discriminated against. Can’t some student groups engage in some forms of discrimination? Isn’t it fair for a religious group to insist that its leaders be part of its religion? Yes, such policies are frankly discriminatory. But is all discrimination necessarily beyond the bounds of proper campus thinking?

Let me repeat: I do not think the two situations are identical. I’m no member or fan of conservative evangelical student groups. But it does seem as if the zeal to purge campuses of any group that might be “discriminatory” has led to weird and troubling sorts of discrimination. Like the confused student council members at UCLA, some zealous campus voices seem to overcompensate in their desire to purge discrimination.