At the beginning of the semester, we supported the University of Wisconsin's decision to retain controversial lecturer Kevin Barrett, citing our belief that students are bright enough to draw their own conclusions concerning Mr. Barrett's highly questionable theories. We still have no reason to believe Mr. Barrett is indoctrinating his class.
We are, however, troubled by Mr. Barrett's lecture yesterday on the UW campus — not because he sought to lead it, but because the UW Folklore Department agreed to sponsor it, even after UW's administration denied his lecture request. The presentation, which was not a part of he Introduction to Islam course Mr. Barrett is teaching this semester, presented the lecturer's belief that the Bush Administration orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as a pretext to going to war in the Middle East.
However irrational his views may be, Mr. Barrett has a right to express them in the marketplace of ideas. He can shout them on Library Mall or rent an auditorium and proclaim his conspiracy theories for all who attend.
UW's sponsorship of Mr. Barrett's lecture, though, lends his views instant credibility by being hosted by a top-flight research university. To be sure, UW in no way endorses Mr. Barrett's views, but by facilitating the speech, the university did give tacit approval of his theories as a matter of serious academic debate.
One is left to wonder what standards UW applies when determining which lecturers are to be allowed the use of taxpayer-funded facilities to voice their beliefs. Would the geography department allow a speaker to present his opinion that the world is flat? Would the history department sponsor a speech by someone that denies the Holocaust occurred?
Ultimately, it is UW's duty — as an institution of higher learning funded in part by taxpayers — to promote scholarly research and vigorous academic debate. Mr. Barrett's conspiracy theories thus far have failed to flirt with either principle.
If his conspiracy theories were published in an academic journal, instead of existing solely on a crudely constructed website, perhaps the lecture would be appropriate. Until then, UW should promote discussion rooted in scholarly analysis, not the grassy knoll.