When political passions run high, disagreement is often expressed as vocal protest. Cultural institutions in a democratic society need to be prepared to manage such protests without silencing the voices they target. Instead, vague “safety concerns” are used to justify the suppression of speech within US cultural and educational institutions with alarming frequency. 

On April 15th, the Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Southern California issued a letter to the campus community announcing the cancelation of the graduation speech of a valedictorian after pro-Israel student groups called for the speaker to be “reconsidered.” The Provost justified this unprecedented cancellation as a response to safety concerns related to the “intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East,” which “has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement.” The letter, which mentions “safe” and “safety” nine times, offers no reference to specific threats, though the University said there were “emails and other electronic communications warning of a plan to disrupt the commencement.”  

The tone of the letter belies the fact that disruption, in the form of protest, does not equal violence. And even if the safety concerns were real and not just a pretext to silence the speaker, for a US educational institution to cancel a valedictorian speech over concerns about potential disruption is extremely disturbing. This kind of response embodies a heckler’s veto: that is, the denial of a speaker’s right to free expression to prevent any possibly disruptive reactions from listeners. 

USC’s provost claims that the “decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech. There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement.” Coming from the leadership of a large public university, this is alarming. The speaker did not just claim the podium—she was selected through a long process that recognized her academic achievements and volunteer work. The cancellation came solely because of her personal political views. This, indeed, has everything to do with freedom of speech. 

Justifying censorship as the only possible response to threats of disruption or safety concerns is not new, but it is happening with greater frequency. In 2018, when the Guggenheim Museum in New York removed three works from Art and China after 1989 out of “concern for the safety of its staff, visitors and participating artists,” NCAC warned of a growing worldwide trend in which the invocation of “safety” results in silencing artistic expression and free speech. As we said at the time, “When cultural institutions cave into such threats, others who are convinced of the moral rectitude of their cause are encouraged to embrace similar tactics. This time, it is animal rights activists. Next time, it could be religious or political extremists.”

And indeed, this is what is increasingly happening today.

Earlier this year, for instance, Indiana University canceled a retrospective of artist Samia Halaby’s abstract art because of concerns that the artist’s social media posts in support of Palestine might lead to protest and disruption. The actual violence accompanying some protests, such as those of Drag Queen Story Hour events, has created an atmosphere of fear. While violent episodes are rare, even hints of potential violent threats have led to a wave of cancellations. Sometimes, however, the possibility of violence is evoked just so as to justify the cancellation of a controversial event. 

In the face of political tension, cultural and educational institutions need to work with law enforcement to protect their staff, the public, and the works on view and to ensure that efforts to ensure “safety” amid anticipated acts of protest do not override the right to free expression. The decision to cancel or postpone an event should come only in the very rare cases where law enforcement officials determine that there is an immediate and real danger of physical harm that cannot be forestalled. But these actual threats must not blind us to the creeping danger of invoking “safety” in response to mere dissent. 

Upholding free speech rights is becoming increasingly difficult in our highly politicized landscape, but educational and cultural institutions have a duty to meet this challenge. For our cultural institutions to remain relevant, core free speech principles need to prevail, even if protests might accompany a controversial event. Perhaps especially in these circumstances – after all, counterspeech and protest are a feature of American democracy, not a bug.