SUNY cancels debate after prof. objects to conservative participant

A planned left-right debate at the State University of New York at New Paltz was abruptly cancelled at the last-minute based on objections to the “right-wing” views of one participant.

Cliff Kincaid, Director of the Center for Investigative Journalism at Accuracy in Media, told Campus Reform that he had been scheduled to debate Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting founder Jeff Cohen on March 30 on the topic of media coverage of the presidential campaign, only to be informed of the cancellation that very morning as he prepared to board a plane bound for New York.

According to The New Paltz Oracle, Mike Patterson, director of the Office of Student Activities and Union Services, announced the cancellation in a campus-wide email that afternoon, explaining that “the intended purpose for our community would likely not be achieved” because opposition to Kincaid’s political positions was expected to overshadow the event.

“The whole conversation wasn’t going to be a debate but rather be a ‘we don’t like Kincaid’ conversation,” Patterson wrote. “All of the people in our office were in on the conversation to cancel the event. We collectively agreed that the goal of the program got out of hand and went beyond what it needed to be.”

Patterson did not specify the source of the objections to Kincaid’s appearance, but a faculty email exchange obtained by The Oracle reveals that sociology professor Dr. Anne Roschelle helped lead the opposition, raising the alarm about unflattering characterizations in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Extremist File” on Kincaid.

“Masquerading as a media watchdog, Cliff Kincaid is actually an unrepentant propagandist for extremist right-wing causes who knows few boundaries in his attempts to smear liberal foes,” SPLC states. “Among his wild pronouncements … are the claims that global warming is a scam perpetrated by the ‘religious left,’ that President Obama is a socialist Muslim, and that Marxist elements have hijacked the Roman Catholic Church in order to facilitate a ‘foreign invasion of the U.S.’ by Latinos.”

Roschelle denied that her messages were part of an effort to prevent Kincaid from speaking, telling The Oracle that “I am not advocating he be uninvited or that people disrupt his talk … What I am suggesting is that for people who do go to his talk to ask critical questions and make your alternative voices heard.”

Kincaid, however, retorts in a post on the AIM website that Roschelle’s position is inherently contradictory, asserting, “It couldn’t be that she was concerned that different voices were not going to be heard … Her concern was that MY voice was going to be heard.

“It appears the totalitarian left is so determined to crush the conservative point of view that it had to be suppressed even when a leftist was on the same panel,” he writes. “Perhaps the taxpayers who help fund New Paltz might want to know how such things happen in an atmosphere that is supposed to assure freedom of speech on campus.”

Kincaid also took the matter up directly with SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian, sending a letter on March 31 challenging him to square the cancellation with the school’s stated commitments to free speech and academic inquiry.

“Why should any student or parent consider New Paltz as an option for those who engage in free thinking, rational thought, and open debate and discussion?” Kincaid asks after remarking that his youngest son is currently in the process of touring prospective colleges. “Considering the comments from the New Paltz website quoted earlier, in regard to ‘creativity’ and ‘learning’ and ‘innovative thinking,’ shouldn’t New Paltz now inform prospective students and their parents that some points of view are NOT permitted on campus?”

Kincaid acknowledges that “some conservative speakers on some campuses can be controversial,” but observes that “this is the first example of blatant suppression of a point of view that I have personally ever encountered on a college campus. And it came in the context of a debate!”

In a brief response sent the same day, Christian assured Kincaid that he had already begun working to reschedule the event, and that planning for the make-up debate would take account of lessons learned from the recent controversy.

“The robust discussion the past two days has allowed us to think critically about how we frame the event for our students and others and has reinforced the value of free speech in our society, where all voices, even those we may disagree with vigorously, can be heard,” he explained. “I hope you can appreciate why this clearer framing is so important to our campus culture, and will set the stage for a valuable learning experience for our students.”

Christian later recapitulated his feelings in greater detail in a report to the school’s faculty on April 4, saying that while he understands why some members of the school community might oppose Kincaid’s appearance, he is unwilling to allow those feelings to inhibit the free exchange of ideas.

“It’s part of our purpose to engage in the free exchange of ideas, even with people whose views we may disagree with,” he reminded them. “If we don’t prepare our students to engage with differing views while they are in college, then we have not prepared them for the world they are about to enter.”

Kincaid said he is perfectly willing to reschedule the debate, but will probably not be available until this fall, by which point he at least hopes to have a more satisfactory explanation of “why, in an unprecedented development, a debate was cancelled on a university campus.”

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