Committee to review at-issue speakers

Shawn Wertz Sep 26, 2005

by Shawn Wertz
& Michael Fitzgerald
Junior Staffwriters

On September 14, Carnegie Mellon President Jared L. Cohon released a public statement announcing a new committee to review CMU?s controversial speaker policy. Cohon?s statement came nearly seven months after proposals of such a committee were originally brought to Student Senate.
The appointment was made in response to three guest lecturers who spoke on campus last semester. The committee will be charged with reviewing and possibly revising the current policy, which is presently a three-page document outlining CMU?s treatment of visiting controversial speakers.
According to Cohon?s statement, ?As a campus community, we are committed to open engagement, even to the extent of allowing offensive or troubling speech. At the same time, we have a tradition of personal respect and decency that can be tested by such unrestricted discourse.?

It is that tradition that was tested earlier this year when the leader of the New Black Panther Party, Malik Zulu Shabazz, gave what was intended to be a lecture on African-American history that was met with protest from a number of campus groups and officials.

DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein and Palestinian-cause speaker Ali Abunimah rounded out the list of three speakers whose lectures allegedly included anti-Semitic material.

It was this material that prompted Hillel, along with other campus organizations, to gather on the night of the Shabazz lecture. Though Aaron Weil, executive director of the Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center, would not make an official comment regarding the peace gathering, he did say in regard to the committee?s appointment that ?we appreciate and respect the University?s decisions, and whatever decisions they?re coming to, they?re keeping the students? best interests in mind.? Weil added, ?While the speakers brought messages of hate, nobody should misconstrue that with the University?s true intention, which is to provide an open and safe forum for all thought.?

However, Weil also said, ?The position of our students has been, and remains to be, that while the Constitution guarantees the right of free speech, it does not guarantee right of venue, and that?s why we believe those speakers were inappropriate.?

The committee now has the task of deciding whether or not the negative response to last semester?s speakers can be prevented from recurring with a revised policy.

?It?s not so much the type of speaker, it?s how each speaker will be handled,? commented Nicholas Scocozzo, the Student Body Vice-President for Finance and member of the new committee. ?It?s not just about looking over the policy, but also how the policy will be enforced.?

With schools such as Shippensburg University (Pa.) and the University of Minnesota currently under pressure from federal courts to revise their free speech policies and further accommodate the First Amendment rights of college students, the committee intends to make sure free speech is not violated.
CMU professor of architecture and committee member Omer Akin insists, ?We will make sure no freedoms are curtailed, but having unlimited freedom can be [problematic], for some may infringe on the freedoms of others.?

Akin stated, ?The public should know that we are reviewing the policy, which is routine.? But he also acknowledged the role the three speakers had in the committee?s appointment. ?If you don?t have fresh data to inform your policy,? he said, ?you cannot make informed changes.?

One committee member claimed that he would need to check his First Amendment rights on the issue before commenting on any possible decisions the committee will be making.

Akin does not expect any changes in the policy, adding, ?I wouldn?t necessarily say we have to change anything,? but referencing the circumstances surrounding the three speakers from last semester, ?a three-page document won?t do everything.?

If any changes are made to the current policy, they will not take effect until spring, as Cohon gave the committee the entire semester to make corrections. ?We?ll be getting different people?s input throughout the semester,? Scocozzo added. ?We?re trying to please everyone as much as possible.?