(Editor’s Note: On Monday of this week, Karen S. Haynes, President of California State University San Marcos, emailed the university community informing them that a proposed campus sponsored appearance by Fahrenheit 9/11 director, Michael Moore, would be postponed “until later in the academic year, and after the election, pending agreement between his schedule and ours, and until we can consider how to provide a balancing perspective.” Campus and community response was immediate. Numerous letters and emails from individual faculty, staff, and departments expressed dismay, disagreement, outrage, and protest.
On Thursday student efforts to host Moore without university funds led to a round of negotiations that may result in his appearance as originally scheduled. Meanwhile, President Haynes is sending mixed signals to the faculty indicating on Wednesday that she was willing to ”reconsider” her decision and then telling the press that she is now concerned that the Moore event be “fiscally viable”.
The letter below was signed by 78 faculty members of California State University San Marcos and sent to President Karen S. Haynes on September 15, 2004. )
Dear President Karen Haynes,
We wish to register our strong opposition to the Executive Council’s decision to postpone Michael Moore’s scheduled speaking engagement at CSUSM on October 13, 2004.
The University’s mission statement claims that it “focuses on the student as an active participant in the learning process.” Moreover, it asserts that “Cal State San Marcos grounds its mission in the public trust ... and sustained enrichment of the intellectual, civic, economic, and cultural life of our region and state.” These two directives are central to our ability to deliver a high-quality education and an excellent student experience. We feel that both have been compromised by an arbitrary use of executive privilege to silence a controversial speaker.
If we truly want our students to be active learners, shouldn’t we actively seek to present them with challenging points of view? Should’t we welcome the kind of active debate that a speaker like Moore is sure to inspire? Shouldn’t we be especially concerned to inspire such debate during the run-up to national elections? Isn’t our mission, above all, to engage our students as active citizens in the democratic process?
Surely we do not imagine that Moore’s celebrity status would prevent our students from exercising the critical skills we have labored so hard to teach them. After all, as you argued in your recent email to the campus community, “some ideas are uncomfortable, but being exposed to them is how we become confident regarding our own beliefs and values.” To protect our students from Moore is to treat them like children. To turn him away is to stifle democracy.
We feel that this decision repeats a disturbing pattern of partisan decision-making under cover of specious claims of balance. After Angela Davis spoke on campus in October 2001, the administration sought private funding to bring in conservative columnist William Safire just a few months later. But what if the tables had been turned? Would the President’s Office have aggressively pursued Davis as a speaker had Safire been invited first by students and faculty? Would the administration now demand a balancing perspective if Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh were scheduled to appear? Or, more to the point since Moore is a filmmaker not a pundit, would the same decision have been reached if Mel Gibson were scheduled to speak about his recent film, The Passion of the Christ?
The question of balance is especially vexed here at Cal State San Marcos. This is, after all, a campus that, during the 1996-97 academic year, saw a wave of hate crimes and virulent racial harassment of faculty. In that context, then-President Stacey agreed to allow former KKK leader and originator of WAR (White Aryan Resistance), Tom Metzger, to speak on campus despite strong community protest. No concern was expressed then about balancing perspectives. And Metzger was finally unable to speak only because no student group would agree to sponsor his appearance.
In the end, the very logic of requiring balanced perspectives is flawed. Were we to follow it to its conclusion, we might decide to invite a speaker to campus to defend the violence of racist mobs, since there is currently a very public exhibit in our new library that is unabashedly critical of lynching. Of course, to do so would be an outrage.
In short, balance should come not from mechanical juxtaposition of speakers with opposing opinions. It should come from our community as we weigh issues, evidence, and opinions. What could more effectively stimulate this healthy process than an energetic and reasoned political speech just at the time when such arguments matter most?
Michael Moore is an important artist and public intellectual who raises central social and political questions for our time. Our university must support those, like Moore, who open discussions about whether our fundamental valuesjustice, reason, equality, and democracyremain active forces in our community and the broader community we serve.
We ask you to honor the results of what you call the “spirited discussion” at the ASI meeting during which student representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of hosting this event. We urge you and the Executive Council to reverse your decision and allow our community the opportunity to engage critically with this timely speaker and his challenging ideas.
Signed by 78 faculty members