Defining what is beyond the pale of public debate

Last weekend, the Stonewall Legal Alliance at FIU College of Law hosted a day of panels on Florida’s Amendment 2, a ballot initiative amending the state constitution to define marriage as a union of one man and one woman and prohibiting creation of substantially equivalent unions. At the heart of the event was a debate between my friend and colleague Professor Jose Gabilondo (Stonewall’s faculty adviser) and Marge and Shirley Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church–an anti-(inter alia) gay rights group best known for picketing at the funerals of fallen soldiers.

The invitation was met with anger and criticism from all sides. Some on the left argued the invitation gave Westboro legitimacy in the public debate that it did not deserve. Jose has told me that he received letters of protest from a number of groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as letters from individuals directly critical of him. Requests were made to both the COL and University administrations to intervene and rescind the invitation. And some campus student groups were urged by administrators not to attend the event so as to avoid being confronted by insulting words and ideas. Some on the right complained that inviting Westboro to present the pro-Amendment 2 position was stacking the rhetorical deck in the anti-amendment side’s favor, because the opponent is incapable of presenting the “true” intellectual arguments against same-sex marriage and can do nothing other than turn the event into a circus that will horrify observers into opposing the ballot proposal and make Prof. Gabilondo’s anti-amendment arguments look better.

Jose discusses the controversy here, including a strong defense of uniquely open intellectual exchange in a university setting, including the presence of non-“mainstream” speakers and views. (And, to the extent it matters, Stonewall invited a number of local and national amendment supporters, all of which declined the invitation.

The common theme, left and right, is that Westboro is not (and should not be treated as) part of the legitimate public debate or public discourse on these issues. The Phelps are not capable of engaging in an intellectual or academic debate, because their views are too out-of-the-mainstream, and thus should not be included. They are a hate-spewing, bigoted circus show that either (from the left) does not deserve to be legitimized and treated as having something useful to say or that (from the right) should not be allowed to make the case for the conservative, anti-same-sex-marriage side because they cannot make it well and will have the effect of making those who agree with their conclusions, but for legitimate, non-bigoted reasons, look like bigots. Westboro is not part of the “mainstream” of public views and thus should be excluded from the discussion. Not to say that they cannot speak in their own fora (although multi-million-dollar civil judgments will curb that); only to say that they should not be invited into the fold of “polite” public fora, such as at a university event.

Jose’s post offers a strong defense of expanding the range of speakers and ideas to be included in the debate, a position I share. It is not clear how one defines “mainstream,” a politically loaded term. And even the most reprehensible views (or most reprehensible manner of expressing some views) should be given the opportunity to be exposed to the light of day, if only to be ridiculed and defeated appropriately.

This incident brings to mind two somewhat similar controversies. The first occurred when I was in college in the late ’80s. Northwestern had a tenured engineering professor whose hobby was Holocaust denial and who had written a book on it. Around the same time, a Holocaust denial group published several editorial advertisements in The Daily Northwestern, pitching its views and seeking to debate (or at least sit down for a beer with) Peter Hayes, an NU history professor and leading Holocaust scholar. This was in the relatively early days of both the Holocaust as a subject of scholarship and pedagogy in the U.S. and of Holocaust denial as an open subject, at least in the U.S. And Hayes explained to me that he (and others in the discipline) refused to engage on the subject with deniers (either the engineer or the head of that group), whose views were deemed intellectually unserious and unworthy of engagement.

The second is ongoing. Last week, FIU’s College Republicans hosted a two-day display by a group called the “Genocide Awareness Project,” an anti-abortion group that compares legalized abortion to, among other things, the Holocaust, slavery, apartheid, and the Cambodian Killing Fields, and features graphic photographs of terminated fetuses. FIU’s decision to allow the group to set-up has been met with protests and criticism from faculty and student organizations, in part based on the view that the Genocide Awareness Project is an extremist, out-of-the-mainstream group that has no place on campus. Stay tuned on this one; I expect it to become a topic of discussion on campus, about which I likely will write more.

I am not sure of the answers here. Is there some difference between what views and ideas are acceptable in political debate (broadly defined) and what is acceptable in academic or university debate–and if so, should the university be more inclusive of non-mainstream ideas? I throw this out for consideration.

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14 Responses

  1. Quidpro says:

    The FIU Stownwall Legal Alliance sponsored a debate. One would think that the Alliance would want both positions in the debate to be represented by articlate and skillful people. This would be most beneficial to both the audience and the debaters. To have unworthy adversaries articulate the position opposed by the Alliance earns it no credit.

    The College Republicans, on the other hand, hosted the “Genocide Awareness Project”. The Republicans were apparently just engaged in free speech. There is no hint from Professor Wasserman’s post that this two day event included a debate.

    This, I believe, is the critical distinction. The universtiy should be broadly open-minded in providing a forum for different groups to advocate their positions. Where important issues are being debated, however, the selection of representatives should be carefully considered to to ensure that the debate is a useful exercise.

  2. Howard Wasserman says:

    It seems to me that this begs the question with respect to Westboro. Why are Westboro people not “articulate and skillful people? Why are they “unworthy adversaries”? Why is a debate with them not a “useful exercise”? Many people disagree with or object to their views–including many people who otherwise reach the same conclusions. But that is inescapably an objection to their message and viewpoint, not to a more neutral-seeming concept such as quality of their advocacy.

  3. Paul Gowder says:


    So what if it’s an objection to their message and viewpoint? There are some people with insane views — who think that the government is transmitting messages into their brains, who think that an international Jewish conspiracy planned 9/11, etc. etc. Are the universities obliged to engage with all of them?

  4. Jim says:

    What if the issue were affirmative action instead of gay marriage? A debate panel similar to this one would have a respected black law professor on one side, and on the other, a KKK Wizard. Do you think the results of such a debate would be worthwhile? Educational? Civil?

    There’s a difference between a debate and an argument. A good debate requires more than simple contradiction or opposing views, it requires the ability to to understand your opponent’s position, remain civil in the face of contrary views, and construct arguments from reason rather than dogma. This is why extremists make bad debaters—their advocacy is usually too colored by fervence.

    You left out an important detail in your summary of Westboro as “an anti-(inter alia) gay rights group best known for picketing at the funerals of fallen soldiers.” Those pickets read (inter alia), “God Hates Fags.” Now, why would anyone invite such an organization to a scholarly debate on gay rights?

    It is the extremity of their views that make them poor choices for an academic debate, not the views themselves.

    I think both sides have it right: Westboro is a caricature of those against gay-marriage, who does neither side of the debate any favors by participating.

  5. Jim says:

    Also, there’s an important distinction between this and the examples you cite (Holocaust deniers at Northwestern and the “Genocide Awareness Project” at FIU): Marge and Shirley Phelps were invited. There is a vast difference between (1) permitting a group to speak its views on campus, (2) accepting or refusing to engage in a debate, and (3) inviting a group to participate in a debate. The invitation confers legitimacy (if not approval). It says that this is a group with messages and viewpoints that have a place in scholarly debate. So of course those messages and viewpoints are a valid target of criticism.

  6. Nate Oman says:

    Given that the Stonewall Legal Alliance is sponsoring the event, inviting the Westboro Baptist Church folks strikes me a cheap rhetorical stunt, rather than a real issue for free speech or dialogue. The student group ought to be free to pull rhetorical stunts, but the stunts also ought to be dismissed as gimmicks when that is what they are.

  7. Howard Wasserman says:

    All these comments are great. But, again, they all take as a given that Westboro is too extreme and too beyond the pale. But that is the question at the heart of my original post: What places a group, such as Westboro, beyond the pale? When do views become “too extreme”? Who decides which views are (to quote Paul) “insane” or (to quote Note) which groups amount to a “cheap rhetorical stunt”? When are views too far out of the “mainstream”? Is it just “I know it when I see it”?

    And to Jim’s third point, trying to distinguish among inviting a speaker and permitting a speaker to come onto campus: Most people do not or will not make that distinction. So the controversy over the Genocide Awareness Project is precisely because an extremist, out-of-the-mainstream group had been allowed onto campus and those groups should not be permitted in the forum.

  8. Howard Wasserman says:

    And one more thing: I understand from Prof. Gabilondo (and it is reflected in the post to which I linked) that the Phelps were very civil and very engaging.

  9. Paul Gowder says:

    Yes, Howard, ultimately it is just “I know it when I see it.” Why shouldn’t it be? Anything else would require precisely what I, like those on the left and right you mention, reject, namely, giving those views serious time.

    That is, the moment we declare a standard to pick out the insane, the argument becomes about whether they meet it, and then we’re again forced to engage with the loonies.

    Rational person: “Insane views are those which pick on a discrete and insular minority without a plausible public policy justification.”

    Insane person: “We have a plausible public policy justification! God will destroy America because he hates fags!”

    And suddenly we’re in the quagmire.

    Put differently, there are no *formal* differences between the views of Fred Phelps — or the KKK grand wizard — and the views of a sane person, that we can condition the refusal to engage on. It’s purely a matter of the substantive absurdity of their views, and there are so many ways that a view can be substantively absurd (everything from racism to space aliens) that it’s impossible to describe them beyond simple “I know it when I see it” reference to their insanity. Given that there must be some way to reject engaging with the insane (on pain of never getting any real work done), it must be done on “I know it when I see it” grounds.

  10. Randy says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful post and link.

  11. Anon says:

    While I strongly support the inclusion of non-conventional viewpoints in academic discussion, in this instance I think it is important to be clear about the nature of the group in question. The Westboro Baptist Church is an independent organization and is not affiliated with any Baptist conventions or associations. In fact, it is a 71-member group helmed by Fred Phelps and primarily known for its hallmark slogan “God Hates Fags.” Group members regularly appear at gay rights events, where they (literally) scream about how much God hates gay people. ( Phelps and his followers believe that God also hates America because America fails to adequately punish gay people. They believe that homosexuality should be a capital offense. When the group appears in public its members tote signs that include messages such as “Fags die/God laughs” and “Thank God for AIDS.”

    Not only does it seem safe to categorize Phelps’ group as quite outside the mainstream (if that concept has any meaning whatsoever), but it also seems safe to conclude that a group that is organized primarily around the notion that God hates gay people will have little to contribute to an intellectual exchange about the Florida ballot initiative. Further, having seen the Phelps group in action a number of times, it seems likely to me (and to the Anti-Defamation League, which has described WBC as publicity-hungry ) that the group will approach the debate less as an opportunity to participate in a meaningful dialogue and more as a conduit for its God-hates-gay-people message. It is regrettable that the group has found a platform that bears the imprimatur of intellectual legitimacy.

  12. Nate Oman says:

    Howard: I think that it is a I know it when I see it standard, which is fine if the standard is merely being used to mock those who give time to nut jobs as a gimmick for making themselves look bettter. We only need to worry about more formally realizable terms when more is on the line. For example, I would want much clearer standards if the Stonewall Alliance was going to be formally punished in some way for sponsoring these wing nuts. For more informal sanctions — such as future distrust or even simple indifference — it seems to me that gut responses will do just fine.

  13. Quidpro says:

    Professor Wasserman: You ask what makes Westboro “beyond the pale”. The answer appears to be in your original post. At least with respect to the debate in question, the universal sentiment on the right appeared to be that the Phelps were unacceptable representatives. When the overwhelming consensus of your political allies is that your views, or their presentation, is too extreme to adequately represent the allied position, then you are “beyond the pale” as an acceptable representative.