I posted last night about Angela Davis’s appearance at UALR tonight (for more information about Davis’s connections to a string of California murders, click here). Davis regularly receives a $10,000 speaking fee, and she’s getting more than that tonight. According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request, approximately $4,000 of her fees for tonight’s speech is coming from you, the taxpayers. This raises a serious question: should there be limits on academic freedom when the taxpayers are footing the bill?
I do not intend to imply that Miss Davis should not be allowed to speak. Quite the contrary: I recognize she is well within her constitutional rights to speak, and the school is within their protected rights to host her. But it is misleading to categorize this debate as a “free speech” issue. This is about taxpayer-sponsored speech.
Does the government have the right to take your money and selectively give it to those who advocate violent revolution? Is this best understood as an issue of academic freedom, or is it the case that those who would seek to destroy academic freedom should not be its beneficiary? What if there is reason to believe that the advocate has a history of violent or even murderous conduct? Can taxpayers have legitimate concerns about these issues? These are the types of questions I asked UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson in an interview yesterday.
To begin, I asked the chancellor if he thought taxpayers and/or state legislators could have legitimate concerns about taxpayer money going to those with extreme political views — not people who just advocate extreme positions, but people who act on them in a violent way:
“I would respond this way: The great thing about universities and colleges is that they embrace the proposition that people ought to be free to hold and advance ideas that are out of the mainstream–even offensive ideas. The assumption that universities and the nation operates are reflected in the Bill of Rights is that you are free to put your ideas out there, including criticisms and complaints about the establishment and then the establishment and everyone else is free to examine your reasoning and your evidence and try to shoot holes in it. It’s the marketplace of ideas. Some new, out of the mainstream ideas certainly come into the marketplace that way and some then may then be adopted for the long run — or they may be rejected.
In the case of this speaker, to my knowledge, she’s been a law-abiding citizen for many years. The lecture is sponsored by the Cooper Honors Program in the English Department. Students like to see and hear prominent people, controversial people up close. From an educational point of view, it’s a way to get students interested in big ideas. Sometimes those are out of the mainstream. Our country has a long history of welcoming ideas out of the mainstream ideas.”
Perhaps “shoot holes in it” was not the best analogy the chancellor could have used. And it is less than clear that Angela Davis’s ideas are “big ideas” — this is a person who has been a long-time member of Communist Party, was involved in a string of murders, and is now making a living by advocating for the abolition of prisons.
I told the chancellor I was not against Davis’s free speech. In fact, I told him I thought she should be allowed to speak, but I was concerned, as are legislators, that taxpayer money is being given to her. Then I asked him if he was familiar with the Marin County Shootout, the incident that almost landed Angela Davis in a penitentiary. He said no, and asked me to elaborate. I told him about the incident — how guns purchased just days before by Angela Davis were used to slaughter four courtroom hostages in 1970. The chancellor’s memory must have been jarred. He told me,
“I’m very much aware that she was a controversial figure long ago — as I recall there was a trial in which she was acquitted.”
As to whether or not we are now expected to believe Angela Davis is completely innocent, the chancellor said,
“I’m in no position to have an opinion on those events that happened many years ago. What I know is, there are faculty members who think that it would be a good educational experience for students to hear her. I’m certainly approving of them exercising their judgement and inviting a controversial person to campus. To my knowledge, she’s been a law-abiding person for many, many years.”
Lastly, I asked the chancellor what he would say to Arkansas taxpayers and legislators who are concerned about the spending of their money in this way:
“I thought that in a way I had already spoken to that. In this particular case, there are several units and offices on campus that have contributed a little bit of money. Some of them are contributing private money. I would certainly say it is appropriate to provide for experiences outside the classroom to provide educational experiences for students.”
I find many of these comments by the chancellor quite troubling. He seemed blase about the fact that taxpayers are on the hook for a large portion of Davis’s fees. For the chancellor, the issue was entirely about free speech and academic freedom. Remarkably, he seemed to be under the impression that a criminal trial somehow settled the historical issue of Angela Davis’s moral culpability for multiple murders. Of course, criminal acquittals cannot substitute for historical verdicts: a criminal trial is not just a fact-finding enterprise. Rather, it is a complex process — one that serves multiple functions — in which all sorts of evidence is never allowed to be heard; to state the obvious, a criminal trial never reaches a judgment about guilt unless the guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and someone who thinks that a criminal acquittal demonstrates actual innocence betrays a large ignorance about the nature of the criminal justice system. In the real world, we have to make decisions all the time, even if we can’t prove things beyond a reasonable doubt: it is highly irresponsible to pretend that the judgment of a criminal court settles the matter of Davis’s guilt, and (because anyone who is familiar with the case would have to conclude that there is a reasonable possibility that Davis was part of a criminal conspiracy) it is startling that university administrators who are charged with responsible administration of taxpayer money would pay so little attention to these concerns. More particularly, it is hard to view the chancellor’s agnosticism about Davis — namely, that he is in no position to have an opinion about Davis’s past actions — as morally or intellectually serious. If the people who are funding Davis’s appearance at UALR aren’t supposed to make judgments about what she has done in the past, why on earth would anyone believe that university administrators who are passing out thousands of dollars to their chosen speakers are behaving in a responsible fashion?
Free speech is not the same thing as taxpayer-sponsored speech. When administrators are making controversial decisions about how taxpayer money should be spent, they should do more than close their eyes to the facts about the speakers they support. As Senator Rapert said yesterday, it is difficult to legislate good judgment — for the most part, lawmakers and taxpayers are forced to trust the judgment of those put in place to make these decisions. However, when these administrators make bad decisions, taxpayers have a right to raise questions and demand answers.