Columbia Law Professor Lays Out Methods for Banning ‘Threatening’ Guest Speakers

Columbia Law School professor Suzanne Goldberg has laid out three methods to help students ban “threatening” guest speakers.

In an essay for the Knight First Amendment Institute, Goldberg laid out three possible options concerned students can take if they decide to shut down an upcoming guest lecture event. Goldberg argues that students should embrace the “heckler’s veto,” or the notion that threats of violence from those planning to attend controversial events should justify administrative decisions to cancel such events.

First is an approach that looks to past events to predict future costs. Here, a school might exclude speakers whose recent events have been accompanied by violence or severe disruption or perhaps by protests that are large, vigorous, and non-violent.

Second is an approach that seeks to predict event-management costs based on the risks posed by a speaker’s message. Here the focus on would be on the extent to which a speaker’s usual message encourages violence and harassment either generally or toward specific groups within the community, even though the message has not previously prompted violence or large, unruly protests.

Third is an approach that focuses on costs over time from messages that community members experience as threatening, not necessarily of imminent violence but of longer-term harm. More particularly, this approach would potentially exclude speakers who are known to express derogatory messages that leave certain community members feeling threatened and exposed to increased risk as a result.

Goldberg cited a widely-panned New York Times op-ed that argued that words can “alter your brain – even kill neurons – and shorten your life.”  “These threats will have an enduring—and costly—effect on the campus community with respect to future physical safety risks and… sense of well-being,” Goldberg wrote.

She claims that her message on the topic was inspired by the rise of “provocateurs” who come to campuses to “spew hostile messages” and “divert extraordinary levels of resources to protect their messaging.” Columbia University has an endowment of $10 billion according to the latest figures available.

Goldberg, who also serves as Columbia’s Title IX administrator, came under fire from leftist students earlier this semester, when protesters stormed her classroom to challenge her handling of a sexual assault case on campus.


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