HARRISBURG — A move to invite former White House adviser Steve Bannon to speak at the University of Chicago prompted a backlash from student groups on Thursday.
It's the type of controversy that's been replayed over and over in recent years, as colleges struggle to create forums for the exchange of diverse ideas while managing the resistance from students and others who question whether all voices deserve to be heard.
Lawmakers in Harrisburg convened a hearing last week to consider whether there might be legislative remedies that need to be taken to ensure Pennsylvania colleges don't overstep their authority in trying to control speech.
The Senate majority policy committee heard from representatives of the Foundation for Independent Rights in Education (FIRE), along with representatives of the state's public and private universities.
College administrators and faculty recognize that they have an obligation to foster an environment in which sometimes controversial voices are heard, Valerie Harrison, senior advisor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Temple University, told the lawmakers.
But, she said, they are also faced with the fact that their students are often going to be resistant to listening to some of those voices.
“Research shows us that increasingly students prefer an environment that shields them from expression they find offensive,” she said. “We have to educate our community.”
That means helping students understand what the Constitutional protections regarding free speech mean at a time when college students are more likely to engage in protests than their predecessors over the last few years, she said.
“There is a renewed sense of activism,” Harrison said. “We encourage that. We try to develop that.”
Harrison added that many students just don't understand the law and what's protected speech.
College administrators are forced to try to determine how to provide the forum to allow protests while also making sure things don't get out-of-hand, she said.
“We make our best judgment,” Harrison said. “We hope we don't calculate that incorrectly and that compromises our ability to provide education or provide adequate protection for those involved."
The hearing was called by state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill County, who said the issue was brought to his attention by a constituent.
He said the constituent had primarily expressed concern that too many colleges are being cowed into rescinding speaking offers to controversial speakers or faced with burdensome costs to try to control protesters, Argall said.
Despite the periodic flare-up when controversies erupt nationwide, the issue seems largely to be flying under the radar, he said.
FIRE tracks episodes in which colleges or college groups invite speakers only to face push back to reverse the invitation or protest the speech.
The group identified 29 speech dis-invitation controversies on college campuses last year, including a September visit to the University of California in Berkley by conservative activist Milo Yiannopoulos that prompted such a large protest that campus officials estimated they spent $800,000 on security, according to The Associated Press.
None of those controversies took place on Pennsylvania college campuses. But that doesn't mean the state hasn't had its share of free-speech dustups at its colleges.
The group identified 10 dis-invitation controversies at Pennsylvania colleges in the last seven years.
Three of them were at the University of Pennsylvania. They included a 2011 speech by then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a 2013 speech by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a 2016 speech by former CIA Director John Brennan.
A fourth controversy in Pennsylvania identified by the group was in 2015 when former Weather Underground member William Ayers was invited to speak at Penn State. Other controversies included the 2011 move by St. Francis University to cancel a talk by columnist Ellen Goodman over her views on abortion. The group also cited then-Gov. Tom Corbett's commencement speech at Millersville University in 2013. Corbett's speech took place, but the graduating seniors protested his appearance by refusing to applaud his remarks when he concluded.
“Schools will never say 'here are restrictions on speech,'" Joe Cohn, policy director for FIRE, told lawmakers. Instead, the speech controls will be contained within anti-harassment policies that the organization believes are too broad. Colleges also may use questionable policies on how, when and where students can practice their right of free speech, he said.
His group noted that the Tennessee legislature last year passed a law spelling out what student-on-student harassment is to limit how broadly the terms can be. The organization also submitted sample legislation that they dubbed “The Campus Free Expression Act,” which would provide students with remedies to challenge campus restrictions on how and where protests can take place.
Argall said it's too soon to know if lawmakers in Pennsylvania will introduce any of the legislation suggested by FIRE.
Both Harrisson and Rodney Smolla, the dean of the Widener University Delaware Law School, said they'd rather the Legislature leave the issue to college administrators.
The concerns about free speech on campus are largely based on reactions to relatively rare conflicts, Smolla said. The vast majority of colleges manage to balance the interests of everyone without “coddling students.”
“Most universities do a reasonable job striking that balance,” he told lawmakers.
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.