A finance professor at the University of Chicago invited Steve Bannon, the notorious former Breitbart chairman and Trump advisor, to debate globalization, immigration, and populism. Bannon accepted.
But many anti-Bannon students and faculty don't want the debate to happen—even though the professor, Luigi Zingales, is an Italian immigrant who wants to challenge Bannon's nationalist worldview. The Trumpian figure's presence on campus, they claim, could make marginalized students feel unsafe.
"Bannon traffics in hate speech, promoting white supremacist ideologies meant to demean and dehumanize those most marginalized, often people of color," wrote the signatories of an open letter to University President Robert Zimmer. "His presence on campus sends a chilling message not only to students, staff and faculty at the University, but also to the young people who attend the University of Chicago Charter School and Laboratory School and to the primarily black neighbors who surround the university."
More than 1,000 Chicago professors and alumni have signed the letter.
Many students are fighting the invitation as well. Last week, student protesters engaged in a sit-in during Zingales' class. One of the protesters, Rikki Baker-Keusch, told The Chicago Maroon that students "understand the importance of free speech, but this is a private platform and [Bannon] has incited violence against many, and we could not stay quiet."
Student Government President Calvin Cottrell and his executive slate released a statement chiding Zingales for putting an "undue financial and emotional burden" on students of color and Jewish students, "whose safety is directly endangered by Bannon's presence and rhetoric."
"The threat posed by Bannon is real and immediate," they wrote.
I emailed Cottrell to ask for clarification about the alleged threat posed by Bannon. Cottrell replied that he did not think Bannon himself would engage in violence, but was concerned his presence would draw the alt-right to campus.
"Bannon's politics are xenophobic, insular, and backwards," wrote Cottrell in an email. "His presence is dangerous not due of the strength of his ideas, or because of any violence Bannon himself would carry out. Bannon's immediate presence is dangerous because of his association with violent alt-right supporters."
The debate over the Bannon invitation is especially notable because of Chicago's reputation as an outlier in the campus free speech wars. Chicago, more than any other university, has staked out an extremely pro-speech position. In his introduction letter to the class of 2020, Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison warned incoming freshmen that "we do not support so called 'trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."
Inviting Bannon to a debate is perfectly in keeping with the principles Ellison outlined. Zingales told the student paper that he fully believed Bannon should be held accountable for "flirting with racists" and that the debate format is precisely the best way to do that:
"He said that we're not an economy, we're a people. What I want to know is, who is in this 'people'? I'm an immigrant with a strong accent, so I probably don't fit into his definition of 'people.'"
Zingales also addressed a question on whether he would invite someone like Hitler to speak. "Would I have invited Mao [Zedong], for example, to the University?" he asked rhetorically. "Probably yes. Mao killed more people than Hitler and Stalin together, but I would have a conversation with him, yes." Zingales referenced an Italian interview in which Hitler made anti-Semitic results before his rise to power. "It would have been helpful if more people had seen early on what Hitler was made of."
Zingales welcomed student input for the upcoming Bannon event, and asked for suggestions on how to minimize potential counter-protests and violence. He mentioned the possibility of holding an open call for a student to co-moderate the debate with him.
Zingales deserves a great deal of commendation, both for championing the university's mission to foster free inquiry and for explaining why that mission is so essential. And he has remained so good-natured about the controversy over his decision that even student-activists who oppose the Bannon invite have even conceded, "He's so far been very respectful and very responsive, and we appreciate his willingness to speak to the students whom his invitation harms...we can reason with Professor Zingales; we cannot reason with Steve Bannon."
Cottrell told me he supports Zingales' right to invite Bannon, though he disagrees with it. He hopes the event "runs smoothly" and thinks the university should focus on "avoiding another Charlottesville."
"I feel confident that UChicago will rise to the occasion to have this debate in a productive, and safe way!" he wrote.
Cottrell, his fellow students, and other faculty and alumni are all within their rights to criticize the Bannon invite. So far, the campus seems to be having a productive conversation about the event—even the sit-in was quiet and orderly, and activists cancelled a subsequent protest after Zingales agreed to speak with them at a town hall. These discussions about the event could actually serve as a powerful example of why free speech is so important.
The only truly concerning element of the controversy thus far is the idea that it might be necessary to preemptively censor a speaker because of the potential for criminal behavior on the part of the speaker's supporters. Violence has no place on a university campus, or anywhere else, and law enforcement should deal with any violent threats. But we can't start censoring Person A because of what Group X might do if Person A speaks, regardless of whether Group X supports or opposes Person A.
In any case, the alt-right seems far more likely to march on Chicago if the campus unwisely decides to cancel the event, turning Bannon into a free speech martyr. Let him air his nativist views, and let smarter people tear them apart.
Photo Credit: Max Herman/ZUMA Press/Newscom