Rescheduled Debate Addresses Free Speech and Controversies

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

After nearly seven months, Cliff Kincaid finally got to debate at SUNY New Paltz after being disinvited by the college earlier this year. 

Kincaid, director of investigative journalism for Accuracy in Media, (AIM), has been at the center of a controversy on campus since last spring’s cancellation of a politics and media debate which he was scheduled to participate in. 

The initial debate, which was to include two speakers with opposing views, was cancelled by Mike Patterson, director of the Office of Student Activities and Union Services, (OSAUS), after a “robust dialogue” on the faculty email server objected to the inclusion of Kincaid. Outcry followed however, due to conditions in their contract which entitled each of the speakers to $7,500 for the sudden cancellation. 

Subsequently, SUNY New Paltz President Donald P. Christian assembled the “Free Speech Task Force,” a group comprised of six professors who “volunteered to explore these issues further and recommend programming for this fall about free speech with the goal of engaging in a thoughtful discussion focused on the value of free speech in our society, where all voices can be heard.”  

On Thursday, Oct. 20, Kincaid and Steve Rendall, senior analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), participated in the rescheduled debate. The contract for the event, obtained by The New Paltz Oracle via FOIL request, signed between Campus Auxiliary Services and Gotham Artists, the agency representing Rendall and Kincaid, totalled $7,500. Coupled with the cancelled debate from March and Dr. Jonathan Haidt’s lecture about trigger warnings and intellectual diversity on Sept. 28, SUNY New Paltz has spent $25,000 this year on three programs addressing free speech, two of which were held. 

The debate filled the Multi-Purpose Room of the Student Union Building (SUB), and began with introductory remarks from Christian, who sought to reaffirm the college’s commitment to free speech. Christian said that he believed free speech was “essential to society,” before quoting Hank Bounds, president of the University of Nebraska, who had recently made a statement regarding free speech: 

“College campuses, as much as any space, must be places where robust, even uncomfortable, debate is welcomed and encouraged.”

The debate was moderated by Glenn Geher, head of the faculty task force and chair of the psychology department, who thanked both the administration for rescheduling the event and Kincaid for his willingness to return to campus. The format allotted each speaker an 18-minute introduction, then the two were allowed to offer rebuttals before finishing with a Q & A session with the audience. 

Rendall spoke about his background as a left-wing media watchdog, including his various run-ins with Fox News pundits that led to his eventual blacklisting from the network. He commented on the presidential race by comparing the amount of coverage during the primaries that Donald Trump received on “ABC World News,” (81 minutes), to the small amount (20 seconds) that Bernie Sanders received. 

He attributed this to fact that most of the major media companies are owned by a handful of corporations, which he said created a conflict of interests in some instances. He also criticized Les Moonves, chairman of CBS Corporation, for saying that Trump’s controversial presence in the primaries, “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Kincaid prefaced his remarks by addressing The Oracle’s Oct. 6 article which misattributed two claims to him and resulted in a correction and apology. Kincaid said that objective journalism was not being taught by the digital media and journalism department and compared his treatment to that of Trump, accusing the media of a “smear campaign.” 

In reference to the initial debate’s cancellation, Kincaid called it “a disgrace and black mark for this university,” and referred to Haidt’s lecture as “a counselling session.” Kincaid added that he was only invited back by the college in order for the administration to “save face.”  

“You’re spending $20,000 a year to go here and what’re you getting for your money?” Kincaid asked the audience. “You’re in debt, you’re getting useless degrees and you have no jobs.” 

Speaking about the presidential race, Kincaid said that the Wikileaks scandal, which included email hacks of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign,  has shown unprecedented levels of corruption in the American political process. He added that the mainstream media has shown preferable treatment to Hillary Clinton as compared to Sanders during the primaries and Trump in the general election. Kincaid criticized media corporations donating to the Clinton Foundation, which Rendall argued were not used as campaign funds.  

During the Q & A session, Kincaid was the target of all three questions, including one from Anne Roschelle, Ph.D., a sociology professor who had been quoted in The Oracle’s March 31 article covering the initial debate’s cancellation. She contextualized her question by mentioning that in a video on his YouTube channel, Kincaid had identified her as the professor advocating for banning him from campus, which resulted in her getting hate mail, “for the better part of a week.” 

“My question is, why should we give credence to your views?” she asked. 

Kincaid responded by saying that nobody ever contacted him about the initial reasoning behind the debate’s cancellation or the ensuing controversy. Additionally, he said that the faculty wanted to have it both ways, arguing that they started a controversy but did not want to take responsibility for their actions.