A Disability Activist Is Asked to Change Her Speech By Boston University Her Response: In Future Speaking Contracts, No Changes will be Allowed
Earlier this month, when disability activist Alice Wong submitted her remarks for a virtual talk at Boston University’s School of Public Health, the school made an unusual request: to change what she planned to say.
Because she cannot speak, Wong requires questions in advance of public appearances. This allows her to type answers ahead of time to more efficiently use a text-to-speech app. In her pre-written responses for her appearance at BU, she included the phrase “F U Dr. Fauci” and the names of several other public health officials she criticized.
Days before the scheduled talk, a school official wrote to Wong, asking that she change “F U Dr. Fauci” to “I disagree with Dr. Fauci” and to remove the names of the other officials. In doing so, the school inadvertently transformed a simple accessibility request into an opportunity to muffle the activist’s speech.
The BU official claimed the request was in accordance with the School of Public Health’s speech guidelines, saying in an email to Wong that “we do not encourage calling out people who are not present” and “we do not lend our platform to speech that is non-rebuttable.”
In fact, the official free speech policy of the university does not include such civility clauses, but a blog from the dean of the Public Health School, which does not constitute official school policy, does. There, he explains his philosophy, which includes the idea that “We are under no obligation to provide a platform for speech which is not open to reasoned reply.”
While such guidelines may seem reasonable on their face, they are nearly impossible to enforce in practice. And in a university context, where campuses have long upheld principles of free expression and supported the exchange of ideas, everyone must be free to speak — especially on contentious political issues and public figures.
Free speech takes us to new, uncomfortable, and occasionally uncivil places, and universities must celebrate this fact if they wish to remain laboratories for democratic discourse. They must also celebrate that free speech is for everyone; using accessibility tools to screen speech that could otherwise not be pre-reviewed flies in the face of this principle.
In her blog, Wong said she changed her remarks out of fear of being disinvited. While the email from the school official did not include an explicit threat of disinvitation, the chilling effect of the request was nonetheless felt.
In addition, in an email to PEN America, Wong said the event organizers did not distribute a code of conduct or speech policy when she was invited to speak. Nor did they make clear their intention to pre-review and screen her remarks. In her blog, she wrote: “Never ever did I think my access needs would be used to have me modify my remarks which would never happen at a live event unless they cut off my microphone or pulled me off the stage.”
Wong is right. And by the school’s own admission in an email to her, they “don’t often receive speaker remarks prior” to speaking engagements. In taking advantage of the situation, BU effectively exploited her accessibility needs and suppressed her authentic expression – even if that was not the intention.
At the event itself, a school official prefaced Wong’s speech with the following: “Alice has kindly edited some elements of her presentation, and in others she calls us out and disagrees with our guidelines. That’s fair enough.” The dean thanked her for challenging their ideas, and said in an email to PEN America that “she made us better as a community.” Such reflection from BU is instructive to how all administrations ought to respond to free speech skirmishes, and one can hope that it results in a more equitable and open culture of expression.
Wong, for her part, has a new speech policy of her own:
“I learned my lesson and it would be the last time this will ever happen to me. I instructed my speaking agent to include a clause in my contract that future event organizers/hosts may not modify or edit any of my written or recorded responses nor may they not request modifications.”