Campus disinvitations: where do they come from?

The Heterodox Academy (HA) has two posts (here and here) analyzing speaker disinvitations (attempted vs. successful), as well as mild versus substantial attempts to disrupt the speaker (the former allows the speaker to give the talk, though interrupting it; the latter brings the talk to a premature close).

The analysis, based on FIRE’s disinvitation database from 2000 to the present (HA’s study goes only through 2016), is deficient in several ways. The graphs have somehow gone missing, some of the conclusions don’t match the tables, the data are not controlled for the size of different universities or their number (e.g., public vs. private), and they use chi-square analysis, which assumes equal numbers of expected disruptions—something that’s not kosher if you don’t control for student population, college size, or political affiliation of the students.

Nevertheless, several results are of interest:

  • The number of disinvitation attempts has grown significantly from 2000-2016, although, as the site says, this may reflect the increasing awareness people have of FIRE’s database rather than a true reflection of campus activities. I suspect that there has been some real increase.
  •  Only 43% of attempts to disinvite speakers were successful.
  • When there was a disruption (54 total), slightly more than half (56%) were substantial as opposed to moderate
  • Most disinvitation attempts that could be classified as to area involved racial issues, views on sexual orientation, views on Islam, and views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • Most disinvitation attempts occurred at public colleges (41% of 333) as compared to private secular colleges (32%) or private religious colleges (27%).  There are more private than public colleges in the U.S. (a twofold difference), but enrollment in public schools is higher overall. They didn’t normalize the disinvitation attempts by number of schools, which is bad, or by number of students (desirable but not a serious lacuna, I think).

Over the 17 years of analysis, here’s where the disinvitation attempts came from:

60% of these are from the left and only 30% from the right. When the “not applicable” data are eliminated, 66% of disinvitations come from the left and 34% from the right. This of course does not control for the number of students of each political persuasion—something impossible to ascertain—and since most students are likely on the left, that might reflect roughly equal per-person efforts to disinvite.  But disinvitations are the result of multi-student campaigns, so I suspect that this reflects to some degree the differential tactics (or power) of left versus right. That conclusion is buttressed by the dramatic change in recent years towards more leftist attempts to disinvite, in the face of what is probably a fairly constant proportion of leftist versus rightist students. But I’m only speculating here.

Regardless, it’s clear that the Left will get more publicity for trying to block speakers, and that’s not good for our side.

Further conclusions:

  • Disruptions of talks over this period came far more from the left than the right when sources were identifiable (moderate disruptions: 27 left, 2 right; substantial disruptions: 21 left, 3 right). Again, these are raw data not controlled for number of students or their political affiliation.
  • For those political areas where disinvitations occurred most often, over 90% of disinvitations came from the left (racial issues, sexual orientation, Islam, etc). The one area in which disinvitations were more common from the right involved abortion and contraception (25/29 disinvitation attempts), and all of these were from private, religious institutions.
  • Although the graph for trends over time is missing, the authors note that “speaker disinvitation attempts from the left of the speaker and the right of the speaker were roughly equal from 2000 to 2009 (except for a spike in activity from the left in 2006). Yet from 2010 onward there is a noticeable increase in disinvitation attempts to the left relative to those from the right.”

You can see this simply by scanning the disinvitation database over time.

To supplement the HA data, I looked at the table from 2017 to this year, and found the same thing. Of 38 events in which the political affiliation of disinviters could be ascertained, 34 of them, or 90%, came from the left. Of the 4 that came from the right, one was at Catholic university, protesting James Martin’s views on sexual orientation; one was from Harvard University, protesting Chelsea Manning’s appearance because of criminal misconduct; one from Whittier College, objecting to Xavier Becerra’s views on “other grounds”; and the last from Rutgers University, objecting to Mazen Adi’s views of the Israeli/Palestine conflict.

Regardless of how one should normalize the data by controlling for things like student body size and political affiliation, the trend is clear: the Left tries to disinvite and disrupt invited speakers far more than does the Right. These events often come to public notice, as did the objections to Steve Bannon’s appearance at my university (also in the database), and insofar as they disturb people, it gives the right far more reason to be disturbed than the left. Granted, we have a huge reason to be upset because of our moronic and hamhanded Congress and President. But if we want to take back the government, one way to begin is to stop demanding that campus speakers be disinvited, and stop trying to disrupt them when they speak.


  1. glen1davidson
    Posted March 12, 2018 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    By now, there should be a category on whether or not violence was used or attempted against speakers or those who invite them.

    Evergreen and Middlebury are much worse than most, due student willingness to kidnap and use violence against those who disagree with them. And the disruptions are already a complete abrogation of constitutional rights at public higher ed, and contrary to what any university should be whether public or private.

    Glen Davidson

  2. Historian
    Posted March 12, 2018 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    When examining incidents of attempts to suppress free speech, one must be careful not to conclude that these anecdotes necessarily are reflections of society at large. Matthew Yglesias at Vox has looked at the data and concludes that support of free speech is rising, including on college graduates.

    He notes:
    “Overall public support for free speech is rising over time, not falling. People on the political right are less supportive of free speech than people on the left. College graduates are more supportive than non-graduates. Indeed, a 2016 Knight Foundation survey showed that college students are less likely than the overall population to support restrictions on speech on campus. Among the public at large, meanwhile, the group whose speech the public is most likely to favor stifling is Muslims.”

    “The alarm about student protesters, in other words, though not always mistaken about particular cases, is generally grounded in a completely mistaken view of the big-picture state of American society and public opinion, both on and off campus.”

    He further notes:

    “Also note that in general, people with left-wing ideological commitments are overall more tolerant than people with right-wing ones. There’s simply no evidence for the [David} Brooks view that left-wing politics is producing closed-minded people. Indeed, as [Justin] Murphy notes, this is not really much of a surprise as there is a well-known correlation between left-wing political commitments and the personality attribute known to psychologists as Openness to Experience. Somewhat ironically, two of the best-known popularizers of this point, Jonathan Haidt and Jordan Peterson, are vocal anti-PC activists, though survey data confirms exactly what their research predicts — left-wing people are more supportive of free expression.”

    What we have here is that a tiny fringe of the far left has proven to be the useful idiot for the right wing. This group has served as the Willie Horton (of the 1988 presidential election fame) of free speech by allowing broad conclusions to be drawn from anecdotes. In the age of polling, data should be the source to draw broad conclusions. But, good propagandists know that data is not necessary, indeed often a hindrance, to influencing large swathes of the public.

    • Posted March 12, 2018 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      I suspect that many of those Authoritarian Left would say they support free speech in a poll. They think of “free speech” in terms of their right to speak or maintain a mental reservation for “hate speech”, as evidenced by so many statements starting with, “I support free speech but …”. Of course, perhaps the poll was designed to fish that out but I have my doubts.

      • Historian
        Posted March 12, 2018 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        Polls can be wrong. But, without hard evidence contradicting this poll, your opinion is merely a gut feeling. I don’t know about you, but many of my gut feelings have proven to be wrong. I hope we can see other polls that confirm or reject the findings of this one.

        • Paul S
          Posted March 12, 2018 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

          PZ thinks he’s a representative liberal and advocates punching Nazis, shouting down speakers and deplatforming.
          I have no doubt he’d claim he supports free speech.
          He’s all for free speech, except for those people.
          His followers may be small in number, but they’re vocal.

        • Commen-tater
          Posted March 13, 2018 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

          It isn’t just a gut feeling. It’s a serious question about whether the poll is or isn’t well-designed.

    • BJ
      Posted March 12, 2018 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      This article shows Democrats more likely to say “hate speech” isn’t protected by the Constitution, and to endorse tactics for shutting down speakers. There are many other polls like this.

      I don’t know whether the differences are based on methodology, reporting, or something else, but it seems this is a difficult issue to settle, perhaps because of the desire from each side to show the other as the enemy of freedom.

      All I can say is that the vast majority of incidents we’re seeing are from the left against the right.

      • Craw
        Posted March 12, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        Asking people if they support “free speech” is worse than useless, since many say yes but want to ban “hate speech” or support other curtailments like no-platforming.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted March 12, 2018 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

          Everybody supports free speech — as long as it’s speech they agree with. Very few of any ideological persuasion support free speech when it’s Nazis-marching-in-Skokie-style speech that they abhor.

          Luckily for the commonweal, some of those who do wear black robes and sit on the bench.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted March 12, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      I’d add that students are only a small proportion of the left. The fringe left were so vocal during the 2016 election campaign that Clinton felt forced to say she’d pull out of TPP like Bernie and Trump. Surveys show a majority of Democrats supported the TPP and recognize the benefits of free trade.

      Data were released yesterday, I think by the FBI (but don’t quote me), that in 2017 there were more anti-Semitic attacks than any year since they started keeping proper records (which was quite recently – ?2006). And it’s a big increase too. There’s also been a > 20% increase in the number of anti-Semitic hate groups in the last year. My assumption is the environment created by Trumo emboldens these people. It also means we have a long way to go in becoming an inclusive society.

      • Posted March 12, 2018 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        “…since they started keeping proper records (which was quite recently – ?2006)”…

        FBI started collecting data on hate crimes in 1990 after passage of the Hate Crime Statistics Act but it took some years for all states to comply. In 1992 the first set of statistics was published and since then additional types and kinds of statistics have been added (crimes against gender, for example, were added after the Matthew Shepard case).

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted March 12, 2018 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

          Thanks. 🙂

      • Davide Spinello
        Posted March 15, 2018 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        Antisemitism is the only religious motivated hate crime on the raise in Canada (according to data from statistics Canada), despite the fact that Justin “shirtless” Trudeau has identified Islamophobia as The Problem. No Trump in Canada but same trend.

        Antisemitism is not a an exclusive of the right (just look at the leaders of the women march.)

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted March 15, 2018 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

          It’s very worrying. For at least 800 years, an increase in anti-Semitism has been a prelude to war. We’ve even seen a small amount here with a Jewish cemetery in Auckland being frequently vandalised. It goes largely unreported in the media because it encourages copycats and gives the a$$ho£€s the publicity they seek.

  3. Posted March 12, 2018 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Important to note that there are no disruptions from the center.

    • rom
      Posted March 12, 2018 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      That is with the people that agree with the speaker?

      • Craw
        Posted March 12, 2018 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        Huh? Center means you agree with the Left nutters AND the Right nutters? No. Matt is pointing out that it’s those who use politics as part of their identity and signaling who are more likely to support banning others.

        • rom
          Posted March 12, 2018 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

          Exactly where is the centre in the table cited?

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 12, 2018 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Without looking at any studies it seems clear that the left has a big problem with free speech and has lost any argument they want to make, simply by looking at the bad examples at some of the schools. Some comedians learned about this years ago and stopped further appearances at colleges. The grown up audience was no longer there.

    Shutting down speech is a big business in this country, just ask Donald the Trump or any number of recent sexual assault or harasser professionals. The good old NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) is the tool of choice for many and it does a super job. All you need is money, add a lawyer and you have it. The Me Too movement is kind of knocking down some of this but what will stop it in the schools. Growing up would help a lot.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 12, 2018 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    We should be aware of a recent new phenomenon (or at least a phenomenon that’s new to me): right-wing provocateurs announcing scheduled speaking events solely so that they could later announce that the event has been cancelled due to threats, as a means of demonstrating leftist intolerance. Milo Y, for example, recently cancelled his “Night with Milo” (catchy title, huh?) event purportedly scheduled to be held at a “secret location” in Scottsdale, AZ, as a result, he claimed, of death threats related to him by the Scottsdale police. The Scottsdale police, however, said they had received no death threats directed at Milo, and were unaware that he had a speaking engagement scheduled until Milo announced its cancellation.

    • Posted March 12, 2018 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      Of course! And trust Milo to be in front of this new trend.

    • BJ
      Posted March 12, 2018 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Milo is a nasty shit, but I’ll give him credit for two things: he’s great at using the deficiencies of regressives against them (and against everybody to the left of him), and he sure knows how to provoke his enemies.

      Milo wouldn’t have even one quarter of his popularity without the ammunition given to him by the other side.

    • Posted March 12, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      That’s one reason (of many) I find many of the attempts to cancel are counterproductive – it creates martyrs. And having martyrs provokes *fake* ones, which is even worse.

  6. CJColucci
    Posted March 12, 2018 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Any worthwhile analysis of the problem has to include who got invited where and who didn’t. Who is the left-wing Milo, and what campus invited him before buckling under to pressure? You can’t disinvite people who were never invited in the first place.

  7. BJ
    Posted March 12, 2018 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    It should be noted that the Chelsea Manning incident wasn’t an attempt at deplatforming, as her opponents were only protesting her receiving the honor of a Harvard Fellowship.

    As can be seen in that article, Manning was still welcome to speak, but chose not to once Harvard revoked her status as a visiting fellow. This was a matter of protesting someone’s receiving an honor, rather than their speech.

    I don’t think Spicer or Lewandowski deserved fellowships, either, but this isn’t about who should or shouldn’t be included in that group; it’s about whether or not this was a deplatforming, and it wasn’t.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 12, 2018 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      Meaning it’s like Brandeis reversing its decision to award Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree?

      • BJ
        Posted March 12, 2018 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

        Yep. Not something I agree with, but not a free speech issue either.

  8. Jon Gallant
    Posted March 12, 2018 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Historian observes that “a tiny fringe of the far left has proven to be the useful idiot for the right wing.” This phenomenon, alas, is a very old story. Here, I refer not merely to the Weather Underground in the 1970s. In 1948, the Progressive Party campaign was blithely willing to enable a Republican victory, although that did not come to pass, until Ralph Nader & Co. managed to do it in 2000. Much earlier, in Weimar
    Germany, the KPD (Communist Party) routinely slandered the Social Democrats as fascists or worse than fascists, making it impossible for the German Left to make a united stand against the Nazi Party. This example, by the way, shows that the problem can concern a larger group than a “tiny fringe”.

    In short, the phenomenon of useful idiocy on the Left has been replicated over and over. Either there is some remarkable transmission of the underlying attitude from generation to generation—by epigenetics perhaps?—or else there is a “useful idiot” personality type which regularly gravitates to the Left. I’d bet on the second theory.

  9. Mark Reaume
    Posted March 12, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Another factor that could be clouding the analysis is the lack of data on the rate of provocative speakers over time. It could very well be that the number of people with unorthodox views that seek to speak at these venues has increased over time.

    Come to think of it, I don’t recall a single instance of a controversial speaker coming to my university while I was there in the early 90s, although I do recall some around that time (e.g. Philippe Rushton).

    • Posted March 12, 2018 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      The most controversial speaker I remember off hand in my undergraduate days was Roger Penrose, who is controversial in the sense that most folks in AI (and physics, on this specific topic of “quantum microtubules”) think he’s a nut, but other than that …

      • Mark Reaume
        Posted March 12, 2018 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

        He spoke at my school while I was there as well, I seem to recall that it was very well attended (there were overflow rooms) and people were very respectful to him. There was a lot of chatter before and after his talk that I found to be interesting.

        • Posted March 14, 2018 at 11:32 am | Permalink

          Oh, yes, I did enjoy “putting a person to the ideas” (though I had seen video of him an astrophysics class in CEGEP). It *was* a shame that the physics, CS and philosophy departments couldn’t have had a joint meeting on the subject, though.

          (Especially as philosophy and CS were my things. :))

      • Posted March 12, 2018 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        Yes, Penrose is nutty. I saw him speak 30 years ago and thought he was a bit crazy. Many, me included, find it kind of sad. He has done early work for which he is widely respected. Now he seems to have lost that spark and is trying too hard to get it back.

        • Craw
          Posted March 12, 2018 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

          Brilliant, truly a first rank mind, but he went off the deep end with his anti AI stuff.

  10. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 12, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m especially tired of claims that a speaker is “triggering”. That’s your problem, not theirs.

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