Another week, another ultimately meaningless free speech controversy on an American college campus. Should Ayaan Hirsi Ali be allowed to speak at Yale? If only there were some simple way of settling these nonstop arguments.
Colleges invite prominent people to give speeches. These prominent people are too conservative, or too liberal, or too foreign, or too fascist, or too counterrevolutionary for some student faction or other. Students protest. They petition. They wave signs and send letters and yell and maybe occupy a building. The college withdraws its invitation to the speaker under pressure. The speaker is mad. The students are triumphant, but mad. The college is cowed, and looks stupid, as well as cowardly. Then all of America's most boring pundits wring their hands over tolerance and diversity and The Kids These Days. Nobody wins in this process: not the schools, not the students, not the grownups who wanted to talk to the students, and certainly not the average reader of the average pundit, who is forced to listen to moralist pontificating that is undoubtedly more unbearable than any fascist imperialist political idea that the worst campus speaker could ever put forward.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali says mean things about Islam sometimes. She's already been invited and disinvited as Brandeis University's commencement speaker this year. Now she has been invited to speak at Yale. Oh no! Protests! Upsetness! Much hand-wringing! Whatever shall be done? Inside Higher Ed quotes a statement from Yale's Muslim Student Association:
"We sympathize with the unfortunate circumstances that Ms. Hirsi Ali faced in her Muslim household as a child and we recognize that such experiences do exist in many countries, including Muslim-majority ones," the group wrote. "Our concern is that Ms. Hirsi Ali is being invited to speak as an authority on Islam despite the fact that she does not hold the credentials to do so."
Naturally, the calls for rejecting her invitation to speak, or for adding speakers to the program who will say the opposite of what she says, drew their own objections.
Since this sort of thing will continue to happen forever, allow us to suggest:
A SUGGESTED FRAMEWORK FOR FREE SPEECH ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES
1) People who have controversial, objectionable, or even wrong opinions will be allowed to speak on college campuses.
2) Those who disagree with these people will be allowed to wave signs and yell and protest them and put on their own events with their own speakers with different views.
3) That's all.
No revoked invitations! No cowardly excuses! No need for droning punditry from left and right! And no need to deny anyone the right to make an idiot of themselves in public! This is what free speech is all about. It is not all that complicated.
(I would also add: 4) You are allowed to run up and put a pie in the face of a particularly objectionable speaker IF you are willing to be punched in the face hard in return. Fair is fair.)
[Photo of a good all-purpose protest sign: AP]