Law prof outlines options for banning 'threatening' speakers

A professor at Columbia University Law School recently proposed letting private colleges ban speakers that students find “threatening.”

In an essay for the Knight First Amendment Institute, high-ranking administrator and Professor Suzanne Goldberg outlines three possible strategies that private colleges can use to manage the psychological and financial “costs” of hosting controversial speakers.

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First, she suggests that administrators might wish to “exclude speakers whose recent events have been accompanied by violence or severe disruption or perhaps by protests that are large, vigorous, and non-violent,” after which she takes the idea a step further by speculating that they might also wish to ban speakers based on “the extent to which a speaker’s usual message encourages violence and harassment,” even when those views are not met with violent or unruly protests.

Her third approach calls for colleges to consider “costs over time from messages that community members experience as threatening, not necessarily of imminent violence but of longer-term harm.”

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“More particularly, this approach would potentially exclude speakers who are known to express derogatory messages that leave certain community members feeling threatened and exposed to increased risk as a result,” Goldberg adds.

While she debates the merits of her three approaches, she ultimately notes that the third one “might be even more sensible” and that preemptively restricting speakers “may be the best approach in an admittedly challenging environment.”

“These threats will have an enduring—and costly—effect on the campus community with respect to future physical safety risks and… sense of well-being,” Goldberg says, citing a New York Times op-ed in which Northeastern University professor Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that that words can “make you sick, alter your brain—even kill neurons—and shorten your life.”  

Additionally, Goldberg suggests that private colleges could “screen” speakers before allowing them on campus to determine if a potential speaker aligns with the “school’s commitments to teaching, research, service, or any other core aims.”  

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The essay was included in a series on “Emerging Threats” to free speech, which was commissioned by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia, though since the First Amendment Center’s launch in 2016, it has focused primarily on litigating against the Trump administration.

As Campus Reform reported last month, although the Institute’s purpose is to defend the “freedoms of speech,” it has remained silent in the face of numerous threats to conservative speech on campus, including ones directed at Columbia’s College Republicans chapter.

A disclaimer attached to Goldberg’s article, however, notes that the piece only relates to her personal thoughts on the matter, and “does not express views for or on behalf of Columbia University, nor does it address or interpret the University’s policies regarding speakers on campus.”

Goldberg reiterated in a statement to Campus Reform that she wrote the piece in a personal capacity, calling it a thought-experiment and not an endorsement of any particular approach but rather positing that “some readers or actors might consider a certain position to be preferable.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen