Former NYU President John Sexton spoke on the importance of free speech and debate at a The Review and Debates Club event last night. At the event in the Kimmel Center for University Life, Sexton continued to discuss ideas mentioned in his previous speeches pertaining to dogmatism, civil discourse and the university as a sanctuary.
He said that during his tenure as the university’s president, he was unable to voice his political opinions because he had to remain neutral. During the open question-and-answer session, Sexton said he did not want to comment on the pattern of cancellations and delays of speakers invited to the university by the NYU College Republicans. He nonetheless proceeded to answer a question from Washington Square News on this subject.
“I know the people who run New York University and they are not censors, and saying that a security concern is censorship strikes me as making a huge intellectual leap,” Sexton said. “Part of creating incidents for a good conversation is making sure that there is adequate security.”
Sexton also expressed concern over a perceived university-wide allergy to the nuances and complexities of thoughtful debate. He wants students to understand that people who are open to debate are reasonable.
Sexton was inducted into the National Speech and Debate Association’s Hall of Fame in 2003. CAS sophomore and Review and Debates member Akash Lodh said that Sexton has been deeply involved in debate events at NYU.
“We came up with the idea of him talking about debate, especially after the contentious presidential campaign, after we saw things happening on campus in terms of what is free speech,” Lodh said. “He is very supportive of the debate culture, which is exactly what we’re doing — raising the level of the student dialogue and discourse.”
CAS senior and Review and Debates President Kristijan Dino Ilievski said he invited Sexton to promote the importance of free speech and debate. He wanted Sexton to add to the open forum of the club.
“Our mission is to discuss, deliberate and debate the topics of our time,” Ilievski said. “We want to make it clear that our mission is important not because we say it is but because here’s someone who has more experience than us having engaged in it for a long time.”
Ilievski also wanted to invite Sexton so he could discuss with Review and Debates members how to engage in meaningful dialogue and the importance this dialogue has in the university, the country and the world.
Sexton said that during his time as president of the university, there was an incident when a club on campus planned to show religiously offensive cartoons, and the NYU community responded in a way he deemed to be effective and sensitive. Sexton said that this response from the student body was one of the university’s finest moments, and when asked about the cancellations of several NYUCR guest speakers — including Gavin McInnes and Lucian Wintrich — he said that he believes that censorship and security do not intertwine.
“I was very proud of the way the NYU community responded then,” Sexton said. “The Muslim, Jewish and Christian students filled the steps of Kimmel and the space of Washington Square Park, all holding candles and all asking that the club not go forward with it — and the club decided not to go forward with it.”
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