Campuses across the country are struggling with the issue of speech on campus, sometimes including dis-inviting a controversial speaker, or attempting to shut down a public event. I hope that we don’t go down that road at Carleton. To explain my feelings on this, I want to share some experiences I have had with controversial speech.
When I was in graduate school, my university brought General William Westmoreland to speak. As commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 68, he was responsible for military strategy through one of the worst periods of that war. Opposition to the Vietnam War was the defining aspect of my political viewpoint during my high school and college years. There are few people I might have felt more negative feelings for than I did for the General who was so responsible for how it was run. There were protests and an attempt to halt his appearance, but in the end I was able to hear him speak. His speech was not memorable, but during the question period an important thing happened. A student asked him about a moment in the film Hearts and Minds. In that clip, he makes a statement about the cultural attitude about death held by the people of Vietnam that seemed to betray his own racist attitude. He thanked the student for the question because he said that the editors of the film had misrepresented what he had said. He welcomed the opportunity to set the record straight. Then he went on to pretty much repeat most of what he had said in the film. There was no media or editing between him and the audience (me), and I could draw my own conclusions. I appreciated the opportunity to hear from him directly, and I was glad that his speech was not canceled.
In my first term teaching at Carleton the College held a forum on the conflicts that were going on in Central America. This included looking at the role the U.S. was playing in that region. Representatives of the Central American and U.S. governments, as well as the groups that were fighting against the regimes were included, as was the most significant reporter on the wars from the New York Times. The chapel was packed with people who were concerned about what was going on, there for the chance to see and hear from people who were central to the issues. I was surprised that such an event could happen in a place like Northfield. I was proud to be a part of a school that could manage such a thing. I still am.