Sa’ed Atshan is a popular professor at Swarthmore College.
Although he joined Swarthmore’s faculty just two years ago as a visiting professor, hundreds of students pack his lectures, film screenings, and annual trips to Israel/Palestine. Hundreds more signed a petition last year to ask administrators to give him tenure so he could stick around longer.
Yet to administrators at Friends' Central School in Wynnewood, Atshan poses such a “concern” that they canceled his scheduled speech at the Quaker school last week. Students and parents had complained about Atshan’s ties to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, a global campaign against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank.
But the cancellation sparked a backlash: a mass student walkout last week, the indefinite suspension of two teachers deemed disobedient, cries of censorship, and threats from disgruntled alumni to withhold support until the school apologizes and reschedules Atshan’s talk.
To many, Atshan seemed an odd speaker to silence. He’s a longtime Quaker with Ivy League credentials who teaches peace and conflict resolution and specializes in nonviolent social movements.
But according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a national, nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks such speaker cancellations, he’s just the latest in a “disinvitation” epidemic that erupted when people — fired up by an incendiary presidential race — responded to the rhetoric by covering their ears to shut out opposing viewpoints.
“The heat of the election season raised the temperature and made people a little bit jumpier. We’re in a very raw national mood right now,” said Ari Z. Cohn, a FIRE attorney. “We’re seeing a retreat back into echo chambers, where the only people we listen to are the people we agree with.”
Invitations to 43 speakers were withdrawn or threatened last year, up from 21 the year before, according to FIRE, which was cofounded by a University of Pennsylvania professor and is based in Old City. The group has tallied more than 330 disinvitations since it began tracking them in 2000, according to its online database. And there already have been a few cases in 2017, including Fox News contributor Juan Williams, who Ursinus College this week decided wouldn’t be in the running as commencement speaker after faculty at the Montgomery County school objected.
FIRE focuses on college campuses because they’re revered as havens of intellectual diversity, where students are adults and have the option not to listen to speakers that they don’t want to hear. Lower schools, conversely, have a captive audience of underage listeners, so school administrators rightly have more factors to consider when hosting speakers, Cohn said.
Still, silencing speakers — no matter the age or circumstance of the audience — provokes the same concerns, he said.
“It’s troubling when students don’t believe that there’s something to be gained from hearing out the person they disagree with,” Cohn said. “It’s dangerous not only for the practice of critical-thinking skills, but also for our democratic society. We live in a society based around the clash of ideas and the proving and disproving of ideas that allow us to reach optimal conclusions.”