IN THE battleground over free speech on campus, Clark University constituted the latest skirmish when Clark's president suspended an invitation to Norman Finkelstein by the Clark University Students for Palestinian Rights, which seeks to bring attention to the plight of Palestinians who yearn for their own state.
That Finkelstein is a provocateur and figure of controversy on campuses across the country is not the main story here. Nor is the content of his proposed talk, whether it was to be a presentation on his ideas concerning the so-called "Holocaust Industry" or recent events in Gaza. While his ideas are offensive to many in the Clark community, regardless of his personal history as a child of Holocaust survivors, that is only one aspect of a complicated issue.
In the wake of the president's decision to temporarily rescind and then promptly reinstate the invitation to Finkelstein, many Clark students and faculty members have spoken passionately about the right of student groups to invite speakers to campus. They have vigorously defended student freedom to bring whomever they choose. This is a First Amendment issue, they assert.
The premise of their position is that there is no distinction between Main Street and Clark's Tilton Hall. However, these are different venues. And there is a difference between freedom of speech and an invitation to speak. While the university is a marketplace for ideas, that context shapes meaning.
Just as a rallying cry from a speaker in the House of Commons in London is heard and understood differently than the same words would be from someone on a soapbox at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park, words spoken from a university platform are heard and understood differently than words spoken from an adjacent street. That is why the opposition to Columbia University's invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who openly advocates the annihilation of Israel, was justified. He had every right to stand on a soapbox on Broadway and to say what he liked. But he should not have been given a platform at Columbia University.
An invitation is an honor. While it does not imply endorsement of the ideas presented, it certainly suggests recognition of expertise and stature. Of all the people who could have been invited, the speaker is the chosen one; the outcome of a deliberate selection process. Speakers, for their part, recognize this. They add such presentations to their curriculm vitae and thus build their professional reputations.
The core question that has emerged at Clark is whether students should be permitted to invite anyone to speak without regard to content. That would include white supremacists to share their ideas about racial supremacy. Or Matthew Shepard's murderers, or those who defend them, to discuss their disdain for homosexuality.
Of course, students can listen to such presentations. The issue is with the extension of an invitation. The knotty problem, in short, is the invitation. The process followed - or not followed - in the CUSPR case appears murky at best. The faculty advisor was not apprised of the slate of candidates under consideration, the students' choice, or even that an invitation had been extended. Clearly, process is the linchpin here.
In keeping with our American tradition, universities should adopt a robust invitation process that provides checks and balances and offers a platform to a wide spectrum of political and intellectual positions.Deborah Dwork is a professor of Holocaust history and director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University.