Emory Report
October 15, 2007
Volume 60, Number 7

Emory Report homepage  

October 15, 2007
Emory reaffirms policy on inviting speakers to campus

By earl lewis and john ford

As the recent visit to Columbia University by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proves, few things are more controversial on a college campus than the identity of outsiders invited to speak in the halls of academe.

As the Ahmadinejad visit might also serve to remind us, there is arguably no other activity that so powerfully expresses the value and purpose of a university campus, than does its service as a venue for unpopular or controversial speech. (That is only true, of course, provided that the guest lecturer does not cross the line into the outright inciting of violence or the promulgation of hatred. We always hope, too, that speakers will be able to engage with the academic community and will bring an intellectual openness with them.)

In drawing these lines, university members face some of their most perplexing, painful and personal decisions. Such dilemmas are intrinsic to stewardship of the modern college or university, which is an almost unique sanctuary and soapbox.

As Emory heads into a busy campus lecture season, and as we look even farther ahead to a contentious political campaign, it would be useful to recall basic principles of fairness and practice when it comes to booking University speakers.

In this context, it is worth repeating (verbatim) five principles articulated in 2005 by the American Association of University Professors:

• “Many colleges and universities permit student and faculty groups to issue their own invitations to outside speakers. That practice is an important part of academic freedom and institutions should respect it.

• “When an authorized faculty or student group invites an outside speaker, this does not mean the institution approves or disapproves of the speaker or what the speaker says, has said or will say.

• “Colleges are free to announce that they do not officially endorse a speaker or the views a speaker expresses, but they should not cancel a speech because people on campus or in the community either disagree with its content or disapprove of the speaker.

• “Institutions should ensure that all legitimately invited speakers can express their views and that open discussion can take place.

• “Only in extreme and extraordinary cases may invitations be canceled out of concern for safety.”

These five principles accord well with Emory’s own long-standing policy with respect to speaker invitations. This policy can be read in its entirety on the University Web site at http://policies.emory.edu/8.5.

Free speech on deeply contested issues is often messy and painful. Listening to others, even others with whom we may vehemently disagree, is part of our duty as citizens and part of our education as members of a learning community. We ask all students, faculty and staff to maintain toward outside speakers an intellectually open position of consideration and engagement, while being willing to express agreement or disagreement, as the case may be, both vigorously and respectfully.

Earl Lewis is provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. John Ford is senior vice president and dean of campus life.