Rutgers’ Cancellation of Journalist Lisa Daftari’s Speech an Ill-Considered Response to Student Demands
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NEW YORK—The decision last week by Rutgers University to call off a scheduled speech by journalist Lisa Daftari represents an ill-considered response to demands by certain students, PEN America said in a statement today. While some of Daftari’s past speeches included comments about ISIS and Islam to which some at Rutgers objected, the university should have allowed those concerns to be aired without impairing Dafari’s free expression nor abrogating the rights of those who might have chosen to hear her.
Daftari, an investigative journalist and contributor to Fox News, had been scheduled to speak at Rutgers on “Radicalism on College Campuses,” as part of a series organized by the Office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs. On October 12, the university confirmed their decision to postpone the talk, seemingly in response to an online petition created by a student that labelled her an “Islamophobe,” which had garnered over 1,500 signatories. Although the university at first rightly responded to concerned students on October 9 by emphasizing the administration’s dual commitments to preventing students from feeling marginalized on campus as well as to fostering an open exchange of diverse views, they later changed course, postponing the event. Following public backlash, including some pointing out that some of the purported comments by Daftari that had sparked protest had been misquoted and taken out of context, the university reversed course once again, a representative of the university apologized to Daftari for any “confusion,” and offered alternative dates in November to reschedule the event. Daftari has rejected that offer, stating that Rutgers has treated her with a lack of “integrity and respect” and has tried to conceal that they really cancelled her talk last week, rather than postponed it.
“Daftari may hold views that some students find offensive, but that is not grounds for a disinvitation, the bar for which must be extremely high” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America Project Director for Campus Free Speech. “The concern that a speaker might offend some students cannot be grounds to deny them the opportunity to share their ideas, nor deprive interested audience members the chance to hear them out. The university was right to acknowledge student concerns and could have fostered opportunities for peaceful protest, counterspeech and probing exchange of opposing views. But their ready recourse to a disinvitation sends a chilling message to those on campus who convene events and may dare to take a risk, as well as those invited to Rutgers whose beliefs may not meet with unanimous approval. Daftari planned to speak about the need for meaningful dialogue across difference on campuses, a topic in sore need of attention.”
PEN America has previously addressed the problem of disinvitations as a tactic to silence controversial speakers, and has set out guidelines to help universities avoid suppressing speech. PEN America’s 2016 report, And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech at U.S., and the incorporated PEN America Principles on Campus Speech, detail strategies for campus leaders to respond to controversies over speakers in ways that honor the rights of both invited speakers as well as those who wish to protest their presence on campus.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org
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