Free Speech At Stake

Tim Hall

Since the Ronald Reagan Political Lectureship Series began in 2005, it has not surprised me that comments offered by some of the speakers have been controversial. What is surprising is the extent to which a minority of Oberlin students and, I am sorry to say, a minority of the faculty have complained that the College should not allow the Series at all.

My colleague, Marc Blecher, continues this tradition, arguing in a series of letters this semester that it is inappropriate that the Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians receive the donations they use to sponsor the Series. The problem, as Marc sees it, is that the OCRL are “partisan”, or alternatively, “explicitly political”. Thus, the College accepting donations set aside for the OCRL club (or OC Dems, say) is offering itself “for sale”. By contrast, according to Marc, the College accepting targeted donations for other purposes is unobjectionable. Even donations for other purposes in which the political views of a donor might be realized, such as in the Year of the Queer Series, are fine with Marc.

Marc’s view certainly has its peculiarities. It claims that the very purposes under which a “partisan” student club is constituted as a legitimate College organization are those that explain — with great obviousness, Marc seems to think — why it is illegitimate for College donors to give to that same organization.

It is also not easy to see, even for reasons beyond those in Marc’s letters, why there should be some special significance to student clubs with names of political parties in their names or charters. For one thing, given that a club with a given name might discuss or advocate a range of possible views, it is not clear there is any practical point to administering clubs on the basis of their names or charter statements. Federal law regulating the College’s non-profit status, for example, places no special weight on what College organizations call themselves in restricting campaigning and lobbying. (OCRL neither campaigns nor lobbies). Neither do the overwhelming majority of colleges — I know of no exceptions — craft special rules for off-campus fundraising only for what Marc calls “partisan” student clubs.

In any case, the discussion of “partisan” clubs on a college campus is not particularly relevant to the Reagan Lecture Series. The list of the speakers in the Series — provided in a letter by Club President Nick Miller earlier in the semester demonstrates the Series’ broad topical range. The Series has hosted journalists lecturing on elections and political culture, an activist lecturing on gun rights, scientists lecturing on climate science, a political commentator discussing feminism, an attorney discussing affirmative action, a sociology professor discussing the history of an anti-tax organization, a social science researcher speaking about drug legalization and so on. The Series has hosted former federal officeholders, Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich most prominently. But then the College Convocation Series occasionally plays host to politicians such as sitting Senator Sherrod Brown and that fact hardly makes the Convocation Series into a partisan program. The Reagan Series is no more advocacy of any political party than a comparably sized collection of topical speakers hosted by other College organizations and departments.

(I feel compelled to say here, too, that Reagan Series Sponsor Steve Shapiro (OC ’83) deserves better than the ad hominem direction of some of the commentary this fall. In addition to his support of the Reagan Series, Steve has funded the tuition of foreign students, Conservatory performances and he recently gave a sizeable donation for a new scoreboard to the women’s softball team. He has also been an active and concerned alumnus and Trustee for a number of years. It should be borne in mind even amidst substantial disagreement that our alumni are important members of this community too.) There is no doubt that the College has a distinctive political culture. I do not share a number of the political views that predominate on this campus but I recognize this culture helps make Oberlin the attractive place that it is. Nevertheless, the College rightly places free inquiry, including the freedoms of student organizations to invite speakers of their choosing, prior to its political commitments. From the College’s Rules and Regulations (all from p. 35): “Oberlin College exists as an educational community in which free inquiry and free expression are indispensable”, “Students and student organizations are free to examine and discuss questions of interest to them and to express their opinions both publicly and privately,” and “College organizations are free to bring to the college any guest speaker.”

As the students in OCRL have been right to remind us this fall, whatever its broader political character, Oberlin College is foremost an intellectual institution committed to free speech. It is exactly this principle that is at stake in the Reagan Lecture Series.