The Death of Civility -- and Free Speech - at Fordham

College Republicans and campus Left collude to keep Ann Coulter from speaking.

Leftist doublespeak has long declared that true freedom can only come at the cost of censoring speech which offends or demeans marginalized groups. This paradoxical ethos is now evident in many aspects of American life including the Obama administration’s support of an anti-blasphemy resolution in the UN and in the doctrine of “Islamophobia” which holds that any criticism of Islam is illegitimate and based on irrational fears. These views have unsurprisingly filtered down to the campuses. The most recent example is Fordham University, a Jesuit campus located in New York City, where the University president, left-wing students, and even the campus College Republican chapter have colluded to deny Ann Coulter the right to speak on campus. What’s worse, they have lauded their decision under the guise of free speech.

The controversy began when Fordham’s chapter of the College Republicans invited well known conservative author and commentator, Ann Coulter, to speak on campus. Coulter is a mainstream conservative who is well known for her commentary on Fox News and other stations, for her numerous books and articles, and for speeches at CPAC and other large conventions.

A group of leftist Fordham students got wind of Coulter’s planned campus appearance and organized a Facebook page and petition aimed at denying her the right to speak on campus. Titled, appropriately, “Stop Ann Coulter from Speaking at Fordham,” the Facebook page claims that Coulter  has displayed “immense bigotry, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of intolerance…in her books, interviews, and otherwise over the course of her career.” Abiding by the leftist principle that censorship=freedom, the group paradoxically claims that “All voices, whether conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, religious or secular…deserve to be heard” yet also states “there is no room at a university whose motto is ‘men and women for and with others’ for the endorsement of hate speech.” By labeling Coulter, a mainstream Republican, as a hatemonger, these self-appointed czars of campus speech see fit to ban her voice from campus.

Stirred to act by the Facebook page and petition, Fordham president Father McShane issued a statement slamming Coulter for her views and rhetoric while painting himself as a martyr for the cause of free speech by dint of his refusal to ban her outright from speaking on campus.

“Student groups are allowed, and encouraged, to invite speakers who represent diverse, and sometimes unpopular, points of view, in keeping with the canons of academic freedom. Accordingly, the University will not block the College Republicans from hosting their speaker of choice on campus,” McShane declared.

He went on to viciously excoriate the students who invited Coulter, stating, “To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans, however, would be a tremendous understatement. There are many people who can speak to the conservative point of view with integrity and conviction, but Ms. Coulter is not among them. Her rhetoric is often hateful and needlessly provocative…Still, to prohibit Ms. Coulter from speaking at Fordham would be to do greater violence to the academy, and to the Jesuit tradition of fearless and robust engagement.”

McShane then called upon the Fordham community to protest Coulter’s speech, declaring “I fully expect our students, faculty, alumni, parents, and staff to voice their opposition, civilly and respectfully, and forcefully .” Nowhere in his statement did McShane offer concrete evidence of Coulter’s lack of “integrity”  or of her “hateful and needlessly provocative rhetoric.”

So far, in the retelling, this story plays out as free speech cases often do on college campuses. Angry leftist speech-Nazis protest conservative speakers and university administrators grudgingly defend their right to speak--either because they are required to on Constitutional grounds, in the case of public universities, or because they feel obliged to pay lip service to the now-bedraggled doctrine of academic freedom. Usually the script ends with the campus conservatives brazenly flouting their dissenters and proceeding with their event regardless of the personal or academic costs.

But this story has a twist. Instead of rising to the defense of Coulter, the Fordham College Republicans collaborated in their own silencing by assenting to the leftist coalition’s and McShane’s unsubstantiated charges about Coulter’s “hateful” views and rescinding her invite to speak on campus.

“Looking at the concerns raised about Ms. Coulter, many of them reasonable, we have determined that some of her comments do not represent the ideals of the College Republicans and are inconsistent with both our organization’s mission and the University’s,” the organization declared in a public statement. “Consistent with our strong disagreement with certain comments by Ms. Coulter, we have chosen to cancel the event and rescind Ms. Coulter’s invitation to speak at Fordham… We hope the University community will forgive the College Republicans for our error and continue to allow us to serve as its main voice of the sensible, compassionate, and conservative political movement that we strive to be. We fell short of that standard this time, and we offer our sincere apologies.”

The College Republicans claim that they made the decision to cancel the event prior to Father McShane’s statement, but the end result is the same—they yielded to public pressure and defamed Coulter in the process. And they missed learning a valuable lesson. It may well be that Coulter’s views and rhetoric are a bit right of their own blue-state Republican leanings. But just because Coulter’s views aren’t entirely in sync with their own does not mean that they should not be heard or debated on Fordham’s campus. What more appropriate forum could exist for the clash of ideas than a prominent university? Fordham has hosted left-wing speakers at least as extreme in their views as Coulter is in hers, including Holocaust denier Norman Finkelstein who spoke at Fordham College at Lincoln Center in 2009. Finkelstein has said that he believes that the “only difference between Israeli terrorism and Hamas terrorism is that Israeli terrorism is three times as lethal” and has described September 11 as “payback time for the Americans.” Yet McShane did not write an angry diatribe chastising Students for Solidarity, the left-wing anti-Israel group who invited Finkelstein to campus for their “Palestinian Awareness Week.”

McShane, who quoted the maxim “the answer to bad speech is more speech” in his original statement shaming the College Republicans for inviting Coulter, made clear his true feelings by lavishing praise on the club for their decision to disinvite her: “The leadership of the College Republicans acted quickly, took responsibility for their decisions, and expressed their regrets sincerely and eloquently… our extended Fordham family passed the test with flying colors, engaging in impassioned but overwhelmingly civil debate on politics, academic freedom, and freedom of speech.” McShane’s use of the word “test” is telling. The “test” here is clearly a political litmus test and the College Republicans passed by deeming Coulter too extreme to be allowed a voice on campus.

The news media chimed in, praising McShane’s handling of the situation as if he had actually defended free speech---instead of shaming conservative students to the point of self-censorship. Among these was Maureen Downey of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Get Schooled” blog who asserted that “this incident demonstrates a sensible way to handle controversies over college speakers.” editor-at-large Joan Walsh chimed in to state, “I happen to believe that the path back to civility involves civil people not merely smiling and being civil but forcefully calling extremist Republicans out on their cruelty and extremism. Father McShane shows the way.”

Father McShane has indeed shown the way to a generation of students at Fordham. He has taught them that free speech is only worth defending if it conforms to the whims of the ruling leftist elite and that academic freedom means using one’s position and influence to stifle opposing views. It’s a shame that our young conservatives are buying it.

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