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Did SLU block conservative Horowitz from speaking on campus? Depends on who you ask

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2009 - The College Republicans at Saint Louis University say school officials blocked their efforts to have David Horowitz speak on campus during October. The university says it did not ban his talk but wanted to make sure his views on Islam and terrorism were balanced with other views.

As a result, Horowitz's talk is not likely to happen, and the controversial speaker who often draws fire from liberal groups is finding himself in the unusual position of having his right to speak defended by those he is usually at odds with.

"Now that St. Louis University has cancelled a scheduled October speech by conservative activist David Horowitz," said Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, "it joins the small group of campuses that are universities in name only.

"The free exchange of ideas is not just a comforting offshoot of higher education; it defines the fundamental nature of the enterprise."

Horowitz is an activist whose politics have shifted from left to right over the years. He founded a group called Students for Academic Freedom, whose motto is "You can't get a good education if they're only telling you half the story."

He perhaps has drawn most notice by his criticism of radical Islam -- the topic of the speech for which he was invited by the College Republicans. They said they were willing to change the original title of Horowitz's talk, "Islamo-Fascism Awareness and Civil Rights" to "Terrorism Awareness," and make other changes to allow the talk to proceed.

But, the group said in a statement, "Almost every modification presented to the program involved David Horowitz not coming."

In its own statement, the university said it "did not ban Mr. Horowitz from campus." It said it was concerned that the original program "could be viewed as attacking another faith and seeking to cause derision on campus." It said it made other suggestions, but the College Republicans "informed the university that they were pursuing other options."

For his part, Horowitz seems both angered and bemused by the whole controversy. In a telephone interview, he said he has spoken at 400 universities in 20 years -- including Catholic and Jesuit institutions such as Georgetown, Gonzaga, Loyola of Chicago and others -- and "this is the first time a university administration has blocked a talk of mine. I was shocked."

He called the allegation that he would be disrespectful to Islam "a demonstrable falsehood" and said that "the first thing I say is that there are good Muslims and bad Muslims.

"It's not an attack on Muslims. It's an attack on terrorists. There's a big difference."

Horowitz, who said he would have been paid $3,000 for his talk -- "about a third of what Bill Ayers gets" -- said his biggest disappointment is the effect that the SLU administration's decision would have on the students who sought to bring him to the campus.

"They have been stigmatized as wanting to bring a speaker who was going to attack a religion," he said. "That is false. What kind of encouragement is that? How many conservative speakers do they have come to campus, if any? A university is supposed to open your mind, not close it."

Danny Laub, a junior political science major from Cincinnati who is vice president of the College Republicans, said the group had submitted the paperwork for Horowitz's talk during the summer. Horowitz would have been paid from a student activities fee. But when classes resumed in August, Laub was invited in to talk to Scott Smith, the university's dean of students.

Laub said he "knew it wouldn't be smooth sailing from the beginning, but we went in with an open mind."

After talking with Smith, Laub said, and offering to make modifications, it was clear that the university didn't want Horowitz to speak because of his political views. "I think it comes down to the fact that the university wants to avoid controversy in general.

"We've definitely had controversial people on campus before. It's a very subjective policy on who can speak. I don't think right or left is being singled out. It's just a terrible policy across the board."

University officials declined to respond to repeated attempts for comment, saying that their statement would have to be sufficient and they were not obligated to go beyond it.

The university's policy on outside speakers says:

"Student organizations are permitted to invite speakers to campus with the approval of their organizational advisor and as long as they are consistent with the mission of Saint Louis University. Controversial speakers may be permitted with the approvals of the Department of Student Life and Campus Ministry. Speakers seeking election to a political office must receive the approval of Student Life and the University General Counsel."

By comparison, a similar policy at Washington University states:

"Washington University is committed to the expression of a wide diversity of ideas and opinions and to the discussion of those ideas and opinions. Consistent with these principles, the university encourages university organizations to sponsor speakers of varying ideas and opinions, subject to the university's obligations to maintain political neutrality, to comply with applicable law, and to provide a safe and secure forum."

The Horowitz controversy has made for unusually strange bedfellows. John K. Wilson, a persistent critic of Horowitz, said on his blog, College Freedom, that "David Horowitz and I rarely agree on anything. But we are in complete harmony on one point: it's absolutely wrong for St. Louis University (SLU) officials to ban him from speaking on campus."

Saying that the SLU policy on outside speakers may be the worst in the country, Wilson added:

"The question of what Horowitz thinks is irrelevant to the issue of allowing him to speak. Insulting religious beliefs is part of an open debate of ideas. Imagine a speaker who maligned all Muslims by saying they are all banned from Heaven. This would be a nasty thing to say to Muslims, but it's also orthodox Catholic doctrine."

He also said that the university's actions concerning Horowitz violates its own mission statement, which says it creates "an academic environment that values and promotes free, active and original intellectual inquiry among its faculty and students."

Wilson concluded:

"You can't promote free intellectual inquiry if you ban speakers with ideas you don't like."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.