SMU sets example for college students engagement with polarizing speakers

Grace Leake

In early December, controversial activist James O’Keefe, founder of conservative whistle-blowing organization Project Veritas, spoke at Southern Methodist University. Event organizers anticipated protesters – but none came.

Instead, attendees questioned O’Keefe without causing a disruption. During the Q&A session after his speech, audience members formed a line to call out questions. Some of the questions were angry or probing, but they were asked according to the confines of the event. O’Keefe responded — or in some cases, declined to comment — without overwhelming shouts and boos.  

Journalists attending the debate noted the lack of protesters, an absence striking in comparison to the type of chaotic responses to conservative speakers that have recently grabbed headlines.

O’Keefe, already a polarizing figure, recently came under fire after one of his organization’s undercover agents attempted to plant a false story about politician Roy Moore in The Washington Post. However, his speech progressed without the riots and screams that have become a hallmark of unpopular speakers’ college visits. Audience members asked O’Keefe critical questions, but listened to his responses. The controlled dialogue was both unexpected and welcome. SMU set an admirable example for how college students should interact with controversial speakers.

The importance of students engaging with ideas they dislike is often noted. Teaching students how to examine such ideas is one of the fundamental purposes of college, and controversial speakers serve this purpose by challenging students to reconsider their assumptions and understand alternative viewpoints.

Florent Marchais, a freshman involved with the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, commented on this benefit.

 “Having controversial speakers on campus allows for groups with opposing opinions to debate in person," Marchais said. “The most productive way to interact with a controversial speaker is to formally organize or informally start a publicly visible debate with the speaker.”

Controlled engagement with divisive speakers gives students a stronger platform for their own voice, in addition to helping them grow intellectually. Rational debate allows students to combat ideas they disagree with more effectively.

James Mismash, a freshman and a member of the Young Conservatives of Texas, noted how a controlled debate amplifies students’ voices. He pointed to how this type of exchange allows student to challenge speakers more directly and articulately. “I think the students would get more respect and a better explanation through being at the event, if possible, and directly questioning the speaker.”

Both Mismash and Marchais noted the utility of protests in drastic circumstances to express unity and draw attention. However, as long as a speaker is not purely malicious or does not pose safety concerns, shutting them down rather than interacting with them does a disservice to everyone involved.

SMU students engaged with O’Keefe in a disciplined and thoughtful manner, and gained much more from the event as a result. Should a controversial speaker come to UT, we should follow SMU’s example.

Grace Leake is a Plan II and business freshman.