Bannon invited to Harvard conference, campus free-speech debate ensues

An invitation for Steve Bannon and other Trump advisors to attend a conference at Harvard University has sparked debate over who should be allowed to participate in campus discourse. 

Gerald Herbert/AP
Stephen Bannon, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's campaign chairman, attends Trump's Hispanic advisory roundtable meeting in New York on Aug. 20.

Steve Bannon, future chief strategist to the president-elect and former head of conservative website Breitbart News, will not be making an appearance at Harvard University this week as previously planned.

Mr. Bannon, who had been invited to participate in the "Campaign for President: The Managers Look at 2016" conference at the Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics, canceled his plans to attend on Tuesday, without explanation, the eve of a scheduled protest against the invitation from his alma mater. Other members of the Trump campaign team, including campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, reportedly still planned to attend the conference.

The protest against Bannon and other advisors, which remains scheduled to take place on Wednesday afternoon despite his cancellation, comes less than two weeks after a letter to the editor signed by female Harvard Business School alumni denouncing the media executive was published in The New York Times. Organizers of the protest argue that to invite Bannon to take part in a university event is to "normalize" the incendiary rhetoric espoused by Donald Trump and Breitbart News, which Bannon has described as a "platform for the alt-right." But others say allowing Bannon and other controversial figures a voice in campus discourse presents an important opportunity to engage with, and better understand, other perspectives in a time of extreme political polarization.

The debate over where to draw the line, if at all, on controversial campus visitors is not a new one by any means for universities seeking a balance between academic freedom and a safe campus environment.  

"The challenge has always been for universities, most of which fancy themselves as bastions of free speech ... to balance the competing considerations of security and incendiary rhetoric with what they feel is their academic mission, which they often describe as pursuing truth and fostering an open marketplace of ideas," says Kenneth Lasson, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and author of "Trembling in the Ivory Tower: Excesses in the Pursuit of Truth and Tenure," in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "That hasn’t changed. What has changed is the social and educational landscape, particularly with the rise of the current notion of political correctness."

Opposition to guest speakers denounced as racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive has become increasingly common in recent years, with a number of universities canceling speaking engagements in response to student outcry, observers say. 

"There has been an increase in the limitations placed on speech on college and university campuses over the past several years, including the banning of invited speakers," Jason Manning, a professor of sociology at West Virginia University, told the Monitor in August. "This has involved a cultural change among students, especially student activists."

In the case of Bannon, those denouncing his invitation say that including him and other Trump associates in academic discourse gives the brash, often controversial rhetoric found in Mr. Trump's campaign speeches and Breitbart news articles a greater sense of legitimacy.

"Trump brought racist ideologues into the mainstream. By treating this situation as normal, Harvard is normalizing what Bannon stands for," write the organizers of the protest on its Facebook event page. "We do not accept hate and bigotry as normal or legitimate." 

Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf defended the invitation in a statement set to be read at the start of the conference on Wednesday, explaining that the aim of the event is to "see what lessons can be learned about the functioning of our democracy" through discussion with those "at the heart of the campaign."

"We invite speakers and conference participants who have significantly influenced events in the world even if their actions or words cause pain in our community or are at odds with our values because we think that a vigorous discussion of those guests’ actions and words can illuminate crucial issues in public policy and public leadership, and thereby improve policy and leadership over time," said Mr. Elmendorf in the prepared statement. "Deep differences in worldviews – including fundamental disagreements about right and wrong –play key roles in domestic political developments, international conflicts, human rights, economic conditions, and many other subjects of our attention at the Kennedy School."

While the majority of Millennial voters backed Hillary Clinton for president, support for Trump at Harvard University was perhaps even lower than on most college campuses: the Harvard Republican Club, like a number of other college Republican clubs in 2016, chose not to endorse the GOP presidential candidate for the first time in the group's history.

But while Trump didn't earn his endorsement as a candidate, Harvard Republican Club president Declan Garvey told Forward he saw Bannon and other Trump advisors' involvement in the conference as an opportunity for non-Trump supporters to deepen their understanding of the president-elect and the Americans who voted him into office.  

"It’s a question that I’ve been grappling with, about the normalization of Trump and his people, but whether we like it or not, Bannon will have the ear of Donald Trump, he will be senior adviser to the most powerful man in the world," Mr. Garvey said. "No one at Harvard expected that Hillary would lose, and so it’s important for us to understand these people who are for Trump." 

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