Friday, May 5, 2017

Heckler's Veto at UNM, Round 2. KUNM Piles On, and Not Yet Invited Speaker Christina Hoff Sommers Responds

Police presence at Milo Yiannopoulos talk at UNM.
  Source: CFACT
 A university should be the last place on earth where one finds the suppression of free thought. That is not to say that we argue endlessly about whether the earth is round or flat, but that we tackle academic material in the spirit of free and unbiased discovery.  Well, that is the theory. In practice, universities are as political as any other institution and sometimes the politics washes over into the selective discussion of ideas. The latest battleground in the war over free speech vs. avoiding topics that make students uncomfortable and fleeing for their "safe zones" has been the University of New Mexico.

In the latest round of silliness over who are deemed acceptable invited speakers at UNM, the campus radio station KUNM's reporter Marisa Demarco weighed in on whether to invite two conservative speakers to lecture on campus saying this (in the original article, since amended as a result of my letter and one sent by Christina Hoff Sommers, both below):

"When extremist speakers come to town, free speech advocates argue it’s their right under the First Amendment to say whatever they want. But what does it cost to have an event like that on a university campus?.(snip)..The Albuquerque Journal reported UNM’s president Chaouki Abdallah declined to ban two more far-right speakers from campus, despite students calling for him to do so."

 Now Ms. Demarco has the right to her opinion and of course so does KUNM, but this was supposed to be a news article, not an editorial piece, right? That is the first problem--substituting the reporter's personal bias for actual information. The second is the message. I imagine the student government has policies in place as to how student organizations invite speakers to campus. Even confrontational or controversial speakers. But by casting the potential invitation of two conservative speakers into the context of the expense generated in protecting the appearance of someone I think is more of an agent provocateur than a scholar (Milo Yiannopolous), we muddy the water and impose the "bad company fallacy" on the argument. Furthermore, the implicit message is clear: is free speech worth the price imposed by those wielding the Heckler's Veto?  One has to wonder why the station would be so willing to pile on in the name of supporting the heckler's veto when the very existence of a public radio station relies for its protection on the First Amendment. So I emailed the station manager (Richard Towne) and New Director (Elaine Baumgartel) and reporter Demarco this spiel, albeit it might not be my best o-dark thirty rant:

Dear Mr. Towne, Ms. Baumgartel, and Ms. DeMarco.

Regarding Marisa Demarco's piece on the radio station "Yiannopoulos Security Costs Rise To $64K"
Your radio station states "The Albuquerque Journal reported UNM’s president Chaouki Abdallah declined to ban two more far-right speakers from campus, despite students calling for him to do so." (italics and boldface are mine).

The two speakers in question are Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former university professor and Ben Shapiro, who was formerly affiliated with Breitbart. Casually characterizing them as "far right" without justification certainly does not do justice to Sommers. I don't follow Mr. Shapiro or Breitbart, so will withhold extensive comments.

Anyone who has listened to Sommers (I listened to a recording of her recent talk at St. Olaf's college yesterday) needs to justify the label "far right". I find that label absurd.
The problem is that by dismissing these two people as "far right" your station attempts to poison the narrative of whether it is fair to invite these speakers to appear on campus in light of the financial costs imposed by deliberate acts of speech disruption.

Ms. Demarco's unjustified and undocumented characterizations amount to ad hominem and must be retracted. As a longtime supporter of public radio and of KUNM in particular, I expect a lot better than this from an NPR affiliate when it comes to promoting intelligent civil discourse. Especially given the importance of this topic to UNM, where the debate as to whether to ban speech that makes people uncomfortable by rioter's veto is reaching full boil.

Thank you.

Note in closing. As a response to this letter and one from Dr. Sommers, KUNM has amended its story and toned down the rhetoric considerably, excising the "far right" stuff and I thank them for that. Now Sommers is still criticized because "...She’s also known for arguing that rape culture doesn’t exist...". That too is a bit of an exaggeration when lacking a context (try this link for  context). But at least it is something readers can look up for themselves.

I wonder if KUNM would call someone like Democracy Now's Amy Goodman "far left" and go about weighing the costs of police resources against the value of hearing Amy speak (who I do listen to) if the police had to turn out in force to manage right wing goons. Maybe I am wrong, but I somehow doubt the station would treat the story the same way.

"Academic freedom cannot and will not flourish if its alleged defenders reserve their outrage only for when their ideological allies fall victim to the online mob. If progressives feel they have to torch conservative straw men before mustering up the courage to defend free inquiry, then academic freedom has a dark future indeed. Conservatives will be walled out entirely, and progressive discourse will be jammed into ever-tighter ideological spaces as a brave few liberals fight a desperate rear-guard action against the true radicals."--David French, in the National Review

Note added today, 5/6/2017. Christina Sommers response to KUNM.

Printed with permission of Dr. Sommers.

Dear Ms Baumgartel, 

  As an NPR affiliate, I think it is important for KUNM to amend the recent story by Marisa DeMarco that portrays Ben Shapiro and Me as right-wing extremists. 

For the record, Ben Shapiro is an Orthodox Jew and mainstream conservative. He famously quit his job at Breitbart because of its association with the Trump campaign. He was then targeted by a virulent alt-right anti-Semitic campaign. According to a 2016 report on "The Anti-Semitic Targeting of Journalists" by the Anti-Defamation League, the biggest target by far was Ben Shapiro.

I am a registered Democrat and a feminist. I am critical of radical third-wave feminism for its carelessness with facts and it's penchant for moral panic. Other liberal feminist scholars such as Wendy Kaminer and Laura Kipnis share my view.  Even the leading anti-sexual violence group RAINN has been critical of the concept of rape culture. In all my speeches and articles I make it clear that sexual assault is a serious problem on campus. But serious problems don't get solved by hyperbole.

Your report mentions that the president of UNM Chaouki Abdallah declined to ban Ben and me "despite students calling him to do so." Which students? How many were there?
In fact, the protest was organized by a small group with a an odd agenda.

What saddens me most about this news story isn't the misleading portrayal of Ben and me. The story conveys the idea that free speech is just not worth the money.  That may not have been Ms. Demarco's intention. But when she updates the story again, I would suggest getting a quotation from the ACLU or FIRE about what is at stake.

Sincerely yours, 
Christina Sommers
Resident Scholar
American Enterprise Institute

Heckler's Veto, Round 1.

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