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Analysis: The shrinking marketplace for ideas

State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park (left), and State Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston. (Photos by Marjorie Kamys Cotera and Bob Daemmrich via the Texas Tribune)

by Ross Ramsey | The Texas Tribune

American colleges are turning into cable television news channels: pure of ideology, quick to take offense, loath to hear another side and swaddled in a narrow reading of the First Amendment that suppresses challenging and sometimes uncomfortable speech.

A college or university where you can’t hear a controversial idea from a controversial speaker isn’t really offering much in the way of higher education. Preventing speech isn’t the same as disagreeing with it; allowing speech doesn’t equate to approval of what’s being said.

In the latest free-speech skirmish — a Texas school just happened to be the site this time — state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, was squeezed out of a Federalist Society talk at Texas Southern University.

The stated reason was that the talk had not been arranged through the proper channels. His appearance this week at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, where the conservative student group had asked him to talk, attracted demonstrators and made short work of the evening.

State Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, happened to be at the school talking to TSU’s president when the protest broke out and helped get Cain out of there. “The fault is not with Briscoe Cain,” Miles told The Texas Tribune. “Briscoe Cain did nothing wrong.”

Cain said he’s willing to try again if TSU will have him.

That’s really not the issue here.

Who broke college?

Universities are where people hear good and bad ideas, argue about them, learn how to think, argue and reason. It’s an uncomfortable environment in the best way, full of friction and argument, of education. They are the original safe spaces — laboratories where students and others mess around with the ideas they’ll wrestle with over the course of their lives.

That’s one reason we have ivory towers — places to consider things at some distance from the practical world. You know — to think.

Safe academic space isn’t where students are protected from contrary ideas or unsavory facts or controversial figures — it’s where they can be exposed to such ideas and facts and figures as they learn how to sort out what they believe, what’s right and wrong, about how to tell good information from bad information.

Hearing about the ideas that animated Nazi Germany don’t automatically turn students into Nazis, any more than reading The Communist Manifesto tints their political flags pink. Just because Briscoe Cain or somebody else says the state government is the central cog of civic life doesn’t turn future officeholders into federalists or critics of local government.

But this interrupted appearance has become common — so much so that lists of derailed presentations, such as the “Disinvitation Database,” have begun to pop up online.

That threatens to make colleges, like the siloed news deserts on cable TV, sanctuaries for unchallenged conformity, where self-appointed ideological curators fight off alternative ideas and speakers to protect students.

Debate over who gets to speak can be part of the mix, and probably should be; Texas A&M University recently canceled a white nationalist rally, in part, because the organizers billed it as a continuation of a violent gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia. Fair enough. But it’s goofy to grant a veto to anyone who can assemble a crowd and make politicians and college administrators nervous about a particular speaker or presentation.

Colleges and universities should shoulder their way into this fight instead of running from it. Invite the idea people — the agreeable and the disagreeable. Listen. Debate. Think. Do it again and again. It ought to be encouraged.

Sticking to what you already know and believe is comfortable, but it’s also one of the greatest problems with civic conversation and governance. It’s unfashionable to listen to other viewpoints, to steal the opposition’s best arguments and ideas, to figure out whether there is common ground and to work from there.

College isn’t the only place where people go to learn how to do battle over ideas, but it’s one of the best places. It’s as if we once had a good idea and institutionalized it: What if we created a place to wrestle with ideas, to hear strange and weird theories, to consider alternative viewpoints and new facts, to consider unconsidered and undiscovered things, to work on expanding what we know to include things outside of our previous experience and knowledge?

Smart invention. We ought to preserve it.

Disclosure: Texas Southern University and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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