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Let DeVos speak at UB

University of Baltimore students protest Betsy DeVos as fall commencement speaker. President Kurt Schmoke says the university will not rescend the invitation to speak. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised given this era of over-the-top political correctness, but when it hits as close to home as the University of Baltimore, where I'm a law professor, I sense something sorely amiss.

How does UB, largely known as a commuter school that prides itself on educating a diverse population of hardworking city-dwellers, find itself in the middle of a maelstrom for having deigned to invite U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to be its commencement speaker?

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The DeVos invitation, tendered back in January by UB president and former city mayor Kurt Schmoke, appears to have generated widespread dismay on campus among both students and faculty. By early this week, thousands had signed a petition demanding he rescind the offer. But Mr. Schmoke stood his ground. "The university stands for freedom of speech," he said, which includes "debate on controversial issues. Having the U.S. Secretary of Education on our campus is something that's very important for the university, and in the long run, I believe that students will recognize that whether they agree with her position on issues or not."

There is certainly nothing wrong with stating one's opinion about the propriety of a particular speaker prior to an invitation. And choosing peacefully to protest a speech — or choosing not to attend in the first place — is likewise in the best traditions of the First Amendment. But to demand a disinvitation is both impolitic and counter-productive. It amounts to a latter-day version of the "heckler's veto," which in its original Supreme Court application would have permitted police to remove a speaker if his or her presentation were deemed likely to foment a riot. Civil libertarians have long argued in favor of supporting the free-speech rights of all speakers, however unpopular.

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Unfortunately disinvitations are hardly unique to UB, even though most people would be hard put to compare the institution to Berkeley. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which maintains a "Disinvitation Database," campus censorship last year hit a record high: at least 43 attempts to secure retracted invitations. Though most were unsuccessful, some speakers (like conservative scholar Charles Murray) have been stifled by protests that have turned violent.

It's not just conservatives who are rejected. This past April, Phyllis Chesler, an emerita professor of psychology and women's studies at the City University of New York, was disinvited by the University of Arkansas, where she was to have participated in a symposium on honor killings in Muslim countries. Protesters had charged her with "Islamophobia," a term that has become a verbal weapon used to silence all criticism of Islam — especially by groups that are well-known to promote Islamic supremacism, opposition to women's rights, hostility toward America and antisemitism.

In today's climate one might legitimately ask if Thomas Jefferson would be boycotted as a commencement speaker because of his well-documented ownership of slaves. (Earlier this week students at the University of Virginia shrouded a statue of Jefferson, the school's founder, in black and covered it with signs reading "racist" and "rapist.") There are many thoughtful and articulate people from across the liberal-conservative spectrum who would make interesting speakers, even (if not especially) because they might be provocative.

University of Baltimore president Kurt Schmoke defended his decision to invite the U.S. Secretary of Education.

At least part of the animus directed toward Ms. DeVos is that she is part of the Trump administration, which one UB faculty member labeled as "neo-fascist, racist, homophobic, anti-semitic, xenophobic, misogynistic." He's as much entitled to that opinion as are those who would think it hyperbolic overkill. But so is Mr. Schmoke's position — that universities should countenance different, even controversial, points of view — eminently justified.

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I for one didn't vote for Mr. Trump, nor would I have supported the nomination of Ms. DeVos as a commencement speaker. But I'd like to hear what she has to say. Let me judge for myself whether she's insensitive or incompetent.

Students and faculty should understand that, when anti-speech petitions like these accomplish their purpose, it makes it far easier to squelch future speakers simply because their ideas might offend or qualifications be questioned.

I suspect that H.L. Mencken, a native Baltimorean who once called democracy the theory "that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard," would have been appalled.

Kenneth Lasson (klasson@ubalt.edu) is a law professor at the University of Baltimore, where he specializes in civil liberties. His most recent book is "Defending Truth: The Quest for Honesty about Jews and Israel."

Editor's note: This piece has been updated to correct the name of the school that disinvited Phyllis Chesler as a speaker. It was the University of Arkansas. The Sun regrets the error.

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