Free Speech at Friends Central?

On his blog, Chuck Fager has been doing his best (here, here, here and here) to keep us abreast of the recent controversy at Friends Central School concerning a cancelled invitation to a Palestinian (Sa’ed Atshan, a Swarthmore Professor) who had been invited to speak by a student group, and the suspension of two teachers who have been advisers to that student organization.

I want to say before proceeding that I am a regular reader and fan of Chuck Fager’s blog.  Second I want to say that I have stood up often for the right of speakers to speak, even (or especially) speakers with whom I disagree.  (See, for example, this and this.)

And third, I want to say I am also a supporter of the BDS Movement, support for which apparently made Sa’ed Atshan unwelcome at Friends Central.  (BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: “The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”) What Israel is doing in Palestine and to Palestinians is cruel and a threat to peace and justice everywhere, the United States is the main financial, political and military supporter in the world for Israel, and the BDS Movement is the most effective strategy currently going for applying pressure on Israel and the U.S. to pursue a just and lasting peace.

I’m glad Chuck Fager is calling attention to the situation at Friends Central School.  I think there are real issues here.  But I do not think they are best understood as “free speech” issues, which is how he has been framing them.

Under the United States Constitution (Amendment 1):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That commitment is first and properly what we should think about when we speak of “free speech,” but notice that it speaks only of what government can do and cannot do (make no law abridging the freedom of speech).  We can get onto wobbly terrain when we extend the meaning of “free speech” to mean that no one, anywhere can restrict speech.  One question at issue at Friends Central is whether a school can restrict speech.

When I was a kid, I was occasionally sent to my room or had my mouth washed out with soap (sometimes both), for things I had said.  Whatever the justness of those punishments, in no way do I take them to have been free speech issues.  My parents, because they were my parents, could put restrictions on what I said.  I also believe it is permissible (not necessarily wise) for businesses, social clubs and other organizations to restrict what is said without being guilty of the denial of free speech.  The test for free speech is whether the government is implicated in the restriction.

Friends Central is an independent school associated with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), not the government.  I believe a k-12 school should properly place some restrictions on who can speak, about what, when and where.  A student who was regularly and loudly disruptive in a classroom ought to be subject to some restriction or discipline, for example.  Proscribing disrespectful language anywhere in a school is something a school might properly consider. Etc.  A good school will have as few such restrictions as possible, and will try to promote respectful, truth-seeking speech more through norms and customs than through compulsion, but that isn’t to say that any use of authority to prevent speech is a denial of free speech.  Such a use of authority may be unwise, but that is a different matter.

The better question in this instance is whether Friends Central was right or wise to restrict speech in this instance.  That’s an important question but a different one than a free speech question.

As someone who believes that the issues in play in Israel/Palestine are among the most important issues of our time, I would want Friends Central students to have an opportunity to learn about BDS and the circumstances that have given rise to it.  Sa’ed Atshan appears to be well qualified to speak about these matters.  In saying this, I’m making a judgment as an outsider.  At Friends Central, those in positions of responsibility would have had to make judgments about whether this was a speaker the school should invite.

Whose responsibility is that at Friends Central?  I don’t know, and I’m sure Friends Central is reviewing their policy on such matters as this crisis smolders.

Typically, colleges and universities have quite decentralized arrangements for extending invitations to speakers, and they should.  Different academic departments and various student groups all are likely to have the right and responsibility to extend invitations.  Once made, the college should stand behind that invitation even if its senior leadership wished the invitation had never been made.  At Earlham, I remember well a tough week when a student group had invited Malik Zulu Shabazz, then head of the New Black Panther Party, to speak.  I considered Shabazz a racist and an anti-Semite, but because he had been properly invited, I stood up for his appearance and worked to make it happen as smoothly as possible.

How about a Quaker k-12 school like Friends Central? Who is authorized to extend invitations to speak there?  How decentralized is that authority.  The situation is different than a college because younger students are involved.  I don’t know what’s proper at a school like Friends Central in extending speaking invitations.  But the answer certainly isn’t ‘anyone can.’  Did the two teachers have that authority? Did they know whether they did or not?  Those are questions on my mind.

Once the invitation had been extended, what was the school’s best response?  That’s an easier one.  I think it would have been better to stand by that invitation. But not because it’s a free speech issue.  Rather, it’s an issue around judgment and good education.

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Related:  Academic Freedom: Sponsorship and the BDS Controversy

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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2 Responses to Free Speech at Friends Central?

  1. muriel says:

    so what was the school’s ostensible and/or real reason for disinviting atshan?

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