Temple University and the Least Controversial Speech That Was Ever Controversial

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Last week I was bestowed an honor that First Amendment lawyers often dream about: I was deemed so important/controversial/dangerous that a speech by me simply could not go forward without providing police protection. The university that was so afraid of me was Temple, and the student group--which had actually reserved a room for my speech months in advance and had been advertising it widely--was told the morning of my speech that an alleged failure in filling out the paperwork two months ago was suddenly grounds to put it on probation.

It was a glorious spring day and the undergraduates seemed downright giddy as they headed to classes, the dining hall, and the library. Meanwhile, I was filled with a combination of concern and excitement. Did people actually care enough about me or, for that matter, dislike me so much that I actually needed an armed guard? For better or for worse, it's a career milestone!

But the grandiosity that the Temple administration had imparted to me was disappointingly unwarranted. The room in which I was speaking was large with a beautiful view of northern Philly in the spring, but the students didn't show up to protest. Indeed, I ended up convening a discussion group with the eight or so students who were there. The attendance was far smaller than I am used to (I speak on campuses on a regular basis), but it contributed to an atmosphere that was quite pleasant, if a bit quiet.

The students asked thoughtful questions, and as the conversation continued the Philly police officer, who seemed bored out of his mind guarding the door, came in and sat down and listened to the speech. He later told me he really enjoyed it. Alas, the event was downright serene, not the glamorous calamity Temple had apparently envisioned.

Among the many ironies that day was the fact that I had been invited to discuss many colleges' disappointing record when it comes to promoting and protecting freedom of speech (you can look at my past writing for the Huffington Post for dozens of really amazing examples). As I explored at length in a long article for the journal The Lantern, I talked about the four factors that I believe are responsible for there being so many absurd instances of censorship on campus:

1. Ideology: too many administrators believe that preventing controversy or hurt feelings is more important than promoting debate and candor.

2. Bureaucracy: there are also just plain too many administrators these days with too much power over students' lives.

3. Liability: universities feel obliged to censor because they believe, interestingly enough, that by cracking down on speech that might offend, they might insulate themselves from legal liability.

4. Ignorance: it doesn't seem like anybody is taught anymore that our entire social, intellectual, and scientific system is based on a process of open dialogue and discussion. This is especially tragic as the places that rely on open exchange the most, colleges and universities, seem to understand it the least these days.

That day, Temple had made itself the poster boy for bureaucracy run amok. Again, despite filing the paperwork months in advance and notifying the administration and the student population of the speech numerous times, the administration decided to put the group that had invited me on probation the morning of the event, citing a lack of notice.

Actually, it was just one administrator, Jason Levy, who decided unilaterally to place the group, Temple University Purpose, on probation. It isn't even Student Activities probation--it is just probation with Jason Levy and the Student Center, in what seems like a previously unknown punishment for a previously unknown type of infraction. In the last 24 hours, I've learned that University Communications is now saying to the press that the group is no longer on probation and that the university has been trying to reach the students to let them know. (Do they have e-mail over there?)

As I wrote in my previous post, I sincerely doubt that the decision to pick on this student group and a speech by me was coincidental. Temple University Purpose has a knack for stirring up controversy, having brought to campus both Dutch politician Geert Wilders and notable Iranian dissidents (here's some video). But even if it was just bureaucratic overreach, it is an object lesson on why it is such a problem that campus bureaucracies have been mushrooming over the past two decades, bringing with them many of the ridiculous cases I have to fight on a daily basis.

So, in this time of great financial strife on campuses, maybe universities should consider slimming down the ranks of administrators and returning those cost savings to students. Less bureaucracy would likely equal more free speech, too.

My organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is working with Temple University Purpose to make sure that the group is taken off of double secret probation.