Race expert tells Congress to cool on college free-speech fears

June 6, 2018

Some heated exchanges greeted Shaun R. Harper after his testimony

By Ross Brenneman

Shaun R. Harper

In the past few years, several high profile and conservative speakers have been invited to give talks on college campuses. And some have found themselves disinvited after generating waves of protest from students of those respective schools.

In response to those instances and other concerns related to free speech on campus, Republican representatives in Congress invited experts on law and campus culture to give testimony this May as to whether the First Amendment is under siege.

Delivering his remarks as a witness, Shaun R. Harper, a Provost Professor at USC Rossier and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center, told the House Subcommittee on Healthcare, Benefits and Administrative Rules that students have the right to protest speakers who bring “hateful and poisonous messages” to their communities.

“Student activity fee money is often used to fund expensive speakers, including those whom College Republicans and other conservative student groups invite,” Harper said. “Most people feel they have a say in something their money helps finance.”

Harper also noted that students pay to attend their institutions, and, most importantly, they and their professors have the constitutional right to protest.

While noting that “sending millions of college-educated citizens into the workforce every year with little experience talking with people who politically disagree with them” is a failure of the country’s colleges, so too have they failed, Harper contended, to create adequate conditions for conversation and learning across racial lines.

Testimony leads to testiness

Saying that there are more than 4,200 colleges and universities in the United States, Harper argued that “the shouting down and rescinding of invitations from highly compensated conservative speakers is an issue plaguing only a tiny fraction of these institutions.”

Responding to Harper’s testimony, Rep. Gary Palmer, an Alabama Republican, asked whether Harper supported the suppression of free speech even if it was only an extremely rare occurrence.

When Harper began providing additional context, the representative cut him off, demanding only a yes-or-no answer. Trying to answer with context again, Harper was cut off again.

“I’m doing just what happens on college campuses; I’m not allowing you to speak,” Palmer said.

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