The abrupt cancellation of a debate featuring speakers with opposing views has spurred campus-wide discussion on the issue of political correctness.
On Wednesday, March 30, a debate between media watchdogs Jeff Cohen and Cliff Kincaid entitled “How the Media Can Sway Votes and Win Elections” was scheduled to be held in the Student Union Multi-Purpose Room. As recently as Monday, March 28, emails from the Office of Student Activities and Union Services, (OSAUS), were still being sent out promoting the event.
However, in an email sent during the early afternoon of Wednesday, March 30, Mike Patterson, director of OSAUS, announced the cancellation of the event. Patterson believed the focus of the program had been lost, saying that “the intended purpose for our community would likely not be achieved.”
The issue sparking the controversy was the inclusion of Kincaid, director of investigative journalism for Accuracy in Media, (AIM), who has made controversial statements in the past about Muslims, climate change and homosexuals. The Southern Poverty Law Center, (SPLC), described Kincaid as “an unrepentant propagandist for extremist right-wing causes.”
In a discussion that originated on the faculty email system and subsequently obtained by The New Paltz Oracle, Anne R. Roschelle, Ph.D., a sociology professor, voiced her objections to Kincaid’s involvement in the debate. However, Roschelle made clear to note that she did not seek to bar Kincaid from speaking.
“Given that I believe in free speech, I am not advocating he be uninvited or that people disrupt his talk,” Roschelle said. “What I am suggesting is that for people who do go to his talk to ask critical questions and make your alternative voices heard. We are an open minded campus.”
Patterson said that his office heard from both students and faculty expressing a variety of concerns that factored into the decision to cancel the debate. Patterson said that while he didn’t hear of any explicit threats to protest, he felt that his office no longer had “the structures and mechanisms in place to reel that back and let there be a true, honest debate.” He also denied that there was any directive from the administration to cancel the event.
“The whole conversation wasn’t going to be a debate but rather be a ‘we don’t like Kincaid’ conversation,” Patterson said. “[OSAUS] cancelled the event. All of the people in our office were in on the conversation to cancel the event. We collectively agreed that the goal of the program got out of hand and went beyond what it needed to be.”
During the evening of March 30, SUNY New Paltz President Donald P. Christian sent out an email to faculty and staff addressing the cancellation of the debate. Firstly, Christian clarified that money from Campus Auxiliary Services were allocated for the event, not state money. Then, he commended both OSAUS for their intent to host the debate and the faculty for expressing their concerns about Kincaid’s background.
However, immediately after the cancellation there were questions about if the speakers were still going to be paid. In the contract, obtained by The New Paltz Oracle, signed between SUNY New Paltz and Gotham Artists, the agency representing Cohen and Kincaid, the third termination clause states, “If the presenter cancels for any reason, Gotham Artists is entitled to full fee.” The full fee totalled $7,500.
Heather Bennett, an adjunct political science professor, was slated to moderate the debate. Bennett said that she was disappointed by the cancellation, especially given the reputation colleges have for being places of intellectual discussion.
“I intended on asking them questions surrounding the presidential candidates and their extreme political positions,” Bennett said. “I think that both, having worked with each other before, would have behaved professionally with each other. I really wanted to ask them questions about their real experience in the media and as media critics.”
Patterson said there would not be a replacement event during this semester but they would pursue another debate event in the future.
“We believed in the value of the program, of promoting opposing perspectives and the value of the debate,” Patterson said. “But we didn’t think the conversation was going to be beneficial by the end of the day.”