Sean Stevens is Heterodox Academy’s Research Director. He has a PhD in social psychology from Rutgers University.
It happened frequently in 2016- a college club or the school administration invites a speaker but due to pressures from student groups or day-of protests, the event is cancelled and the speaker forced to find alternative venues or issue an apology to disappointed audience members.
FIRE recently reported that 2016 featured a record number of disinvitations to speakers from colleges and universities, 46 in total. The previous record of 34 was set in 2013. Such a figure bolsters the case that free speech is being increasingly restricted on college campuses. Yet, a closer inspection reveals that 14 of the 46 disinvitation attempts in 2016 focused on a single target, Milo Yiannopoulos. This suggests that 2016’s record number of disinvitation attempts may not be indicative of an increased level of assault on free speech on college campuses, because the record-setting number may have been driven by one outlier.
Fortunately, FIRE maintains a database documenting speaker disinvitation attempts on college campuses starting in the year 2000, allowing for a deeper investigation into campus disinvitation attempts.
This is the first of a two-part series on FIRE’s disinvitation data. This post focuses on basic exploratory analyses. Part two focuses on the political motivations behind the disinvitation attempts.
FIRE’s disinvitation database documents the following information about each attempt:
- The speaker’s identity
- When applicable, the political motive for the disinvitation attempt, relative to the speaker’s politics (i.e., from the left of the speaker; from the right of the speaker)
- The topic of controversy (including abortion/contraception; civil liberties; criminal or other misconduct; evolution/scientific views; local politics; racial issues; speaker’s religious’ views on gender, immigration, Islam, Israel-Palestine conflict, sexual orientation)
- The type of school (i.e., public; private, secular; private religious).
- The type of speaking event (i.e., campus speech/debate; commencement; teaching; other)
- The source of the disinvitation attempt (i.e., on-campus; off-campus)
- Success of disinvitation attempt
Disinvitation attempt are categorized as successful or unsuccessful. Additionally, instances where a speaker is unable to finish speaking due to disruptions are classified as successful disinvitation attempts, although they are also labeled as substantial event disruptions.
Prior to analyzing the data, the success of disinvitation attempt variable was modified from its Yes/No format, with 2 additional categories:
- Substantial event disruptions were classified into their own category. Thus, they were no longer grouped with successful disinvitations. This was done because during these specific events, the speaker was not actually disinvited, they were however prevented from finishing their remarks.
- Events where significant attempts to prevent a speaker from finishing their remarks occurred were classified as moderate event disruptions. Examples of moderate event disruptions include loud protesting during the speaker’s remarks, pie-throwing (yes- pie throwing), and pulling a fire alarm while a speaker is speaking.
Have disinvitation attempts increased over time?
The number of disinvitation attempts from 2000 to 2016 has grown fairly steadily. The correlation of disinvitations with calendar year was r(15) = .81, p < .001.
There are at least two important caveats to note:
First, FIRE was founded in 1999 and the disinvitation database relies on individuals submitting case reports. Over time, awareness of the organization has likely increased. Thus, it is possible that the increase in reported disinvitation attempts is due to increased awareness of FIRE and the disinvitation database.
Second, the criteria employed by FIRE may have changed over time. Such changes could occur because of decisions made internally to change how certain events are categorized or because different individuals may have been tasked with assessing the submitted disinvitation reports. These caveats apply to all remaining analyses.
How successful were disinvitation attempts from 2000 to 2016?
From 2000 to 2016 almost half of all disinvitation attempts were unsuccessful. Of those unsuccessful attempts, roughly a third of them spurred a moderate event disruption or a substantial event disruption:
|Result of Disinvitation Attempt||Frequency|
|Moderate event disruption||24|
|Substantial event disruption||30|
Were disinvitation attempts more likely to occur for a certain type of speaking event?
The majority of disinvitation attempts from 2000 to 2016 (323 of 333) were for commencement speeches and campus speeches/debates, c2(3) = 303.36, p < .001:
|Type of Event||Number of Disinvitations|
Which topics were most likely to spur disinvitation attempts?
The table below presents the number of disinvitations by type of controversy. Please note that in many cases disinvitation attempts were motivated by more than one controversial topic so the overall number of disinvitations presented in the table below exceeds 333:
|Type of Controversy||Number of Disinvitations|
|Views of gender||32|
|Views on immigration||27|
|Views on Islam||36|
|Views on Israeli-Palestine conflict||42|
|Other political views or positions||139|
|Views on sexual orientation||45|
If the category of other political views or positions is set aside, then disinvitation attempts due to racial issues, views on sexual orientation, and views on the Israeli-Palestine conflict occurred most frequently from 2000 to 2016. A majority of the other controversial topics were also subjected to 20 or more disinvitation attempts.
Were disinvitation attempts more likely to occur at a certain type of school?
From 2000 to 2016 the majority of disinvitation attempts have occurred at public colleges and universities, c2(2) = 11.15, p < .004:
|Type of School||Number of Disinvitations|
In the United States, the number of private non-profit colleges and universities (1,555 as of 2013) is more than double the number of public colleges and universities (689 as of 2013). Yet, public colleges and universities have higher overall enrollment. Thus, the increased number of disinvitations at public schools may be a result of their higher enrollment – the more people on a campus the more likely it is that someone may oppose a given speaker.
Many of the disinvitation attempts at public colleges and universities were not successful, and this is noticeable when also comparing the success rate of disinvitation attempts at private colleges and universities. It is also interesting to note that following an unsuccessful disinvitation attempt, moderate and substantial event disruptions occurred more frequently at public colleges and universities.
|Result of Disinvitation Attempt||Public||Private Secular||Private Religious|
|Unsuccessful disinvitation attempt||67||49||43|
|Successful disinvitation attempt||37||44||49|
|Moderate event disruption||21||4||5|
|Substantial event disruption||13||9||2|
Much of the discrepancy in disinvitation attempts at public colleges and universities compared to private colleges and universities appears to have been driven by a greater number of attempts to disinvite speakers from campus speeches or debates:
|Type of Speaking Event:||Public||Private Secular||Private Religious|
Finally, given that private colleges and universities are not bound by the first amendment, and in the case of religious colleges and universities explicitly promoting a specific value system, it is possible that different topics spurred disinvitation attempts at different types of schools.
The table below presents number of disinvitation attempts by type of controversy and type of school:
|Type of Controversy:||Public||Private Secular||Private Religious|
|Views of gender||16
|Views on immigration||20
|Views on Islam||23
|Views on Israeli-Palestine conflict||15
|Other political views or positions||69
|Views on sexual orientation||19
Thus, for most controversial speakers, public colleges and universities led the way in number of disinvitation attempts. However, disinvitation attempts over abortion/contraception from 2000 to 2016 primarily occurred at religious colleges and universities; and disinvitation attempts because of a speaker’s views on the Israeli-Palestine conflict occurred more often at colleges and universities in the private, secular category.
This basic exploration of FIRE’s disinvitation revealed that:
- Total disinvitation attempts per year increased from 2000 to 2016.
- An unsuccessful disinvitation of a speaker was the most common outcome of a disinvitation attempt.
- Disinvitation attempts occurred primarily for campus speeches/debates or commencement addresses.
- The catchall category of “other political views or positions” spurred the most disinvitation attempts. Racial issues, views on sexual orientation, and views on the Israeli-Palestine conflict all produced over 40 disinvitation attempts.
- Public colleges and universities experienced more disinvitation attempts than private secular and private religious colleges and universities, largely driven by more attempts to disinvite speakers from making campus speeches or participating in campus debates.
- The success rate of disinvitation attempts was higher at private secular and private religious colleges and universities compared to public ones.
For viewpoint diversity to succeed there must be opportunities for students to hear and expose themselves to people and ideas that run counter to their current beliefs. Stifling the ability for students to make their own choice about who- and what- to hear only serves to strengthen orthodoxy and deepen echo chambers that do little to advance quality research and empathy for others.