Do Liberal Amherst Students Have a Responsibility to Pay Far-Right Conservatives To Speak On Campus?

Patrick Moore debates Amherst students and alumni after his lecture at Amherst. Patrick Moore debates Amherst students and alumni after his lecture at Amherst.

Many individual students and groups of students approach the AAS to request large sums of money from the communal Student Activities Fund to pay speakers to come to campus. While the AAS readily funds speakers whom lots of students want to see and learn from, other speakers requests are more controversial.

The Amherst College Republicans, with the help of several thousand dollars from the AAS, have brought several such speakers to campus: Dinesh D’Souza, Patrick Moore, and Mosab Hassan Yousef. These very conservative speakers have each triggered discomfort, anger, and resentment from many students, both for their ideas and for their personal behavior and conduct—D’Souza engaged in a drawn-out, hostile debate with a student and has since become a convicted felon; Moore compared a group of Amherst students to the Taliban; and Yousef honored human life before justifying massacre with the rationalization that “war is ugly”.

Do we, as liberal college students, have a moral responsibility to fund these speakers to come to campus?

The short answer is simple: No.

The long answer will depend on the following refutation of what I perceive to be the three main arguments for funding: personal responsibility to expose ourselves to diverse ideas, institutional responsibility on the part of the College to expose its students to diverse ideas, and the protection of free speech. All three prey on misunderstandings of what liberalism really means, and exploit this misunderstanding to turn liberals against liberalism.

First, some argue college students should expose themselves to a variety of ideas and worldviews because acceptance of diversity is fundamental to a liberal education. This is ludicrous. We must, in response, remember the precondition for liberalism’s very existence: the belief in the sanctity of human life and equality for all people. If liberals, then, believe that all human life must be protected, it would be self-contradictory for a liberal to defend speech that contributes to injustice, oppression, and inequality.

Moreover, the appeal to diversity hinges on a fundamental misunderstanding of what diversity means. Diversity does not imply that all ideas are equal and have an equal right to publicity; rather, “diversity” gains meaning because of inequality itself. We at Amherst prize diversity largely because understanding the experiences of the historically marginalized and oppressed can open the eyes of the privileged to their own privilege. The hope is that this understanding of privilege will lead to a “meaningful life” of fighting for social change and equality.

Dinesh D’Souza, Patrick Moore, and Mosab Hassan Yousef do not push agendas of social justice or equality. These men’s ideas are fundamentally antithetical to the liberal notion of diversity in that they perpetuate oppression with their ideas and actions. The idea that liberals should pay these men to speak on campus in the name of diversity is absurd.

The second argument—that Amherst College has a moral responsibility to expose its students to all the worldviews that exist, because they will come into contact with them in the world—is also absurd. Not only does this argument function on the same appeal to diversity refuted above, but it also leads to the incomprehensible proposition that Amherst has a moral responsibility to expose its students to criminals and human rights violators on the basis that they represent viewpoints that we may come into contact with after college. This is preposterous. Liberalism does not posit that all ideas must be treated equally. Liberals must uphold the belief that ideas that further hatred, inequality, and oppression are unacceptable.

What is free speech?

Finally, some argue that these speakers have the right to be brought onto campus, and that any movement to oppose that right is a violation of free speech. This argument rests on two false assumptions. First, Amherst College, as a private institution, has no responsibility to allow any and all public speech. Amherst can and does ban all sorts of things that are “protected by federal law.”

Secondly, these speakers are not just coming to campus—they’re coming to campus on the students’ dime. That’s right—you paid Patrick Moore to publicly deny anthropogenic climate change in the Red Room last month, and you paid Dinesh D’Souza to say all sorts of racist things last year. Forget the right to free speech—this comes down to a purchasing decision. And those are the exact value judgments that the Budgetary Committee of the AAS makes every week when deciding what to and what not to fund. As I said at the AAS meeting when AC Republicans came to request funding for Mosab Yousef, we ought to spend more money on events that lots of students want, and not spend money on events that make students angry enough to publicly gather and protest.

There’s also another separate, procedural issue—AC Republicans exploited AAS parliamentary procedure in order to receive funding. After a lengthy debate in which I expounded many of the arguments I’ve made here, the AAS initially voted by a tight margin not to fund Yousef. The two students from AC Republicans then waited the length of the meeting, and around midnight, when the meeting was nearly over and several senators had already left, had a first-year senator motion to reconsider the previous vote. Because some senators, who had previously voted against funding, had left the meeting, the vote turned out the other way.

But my main frustration lies with liberal students who defend the “right” of conservative speakers to be paid to speak on campus. Let’s take away the forum for hate at Amherst College. Providing a forum for hate is not a liberal value. Liberal college students have no moral responsibility to pay for speech that supports injustice and oppression.