Disinvited, Re-invited, Still Slighted: Jason Riley Speaks At Virginia Tech

Rachelle Peterson, National Review

The school left the event off the school calendar and pitched it to alumni and donors but not students.

On Thursday, Jason Riley, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, delivered the BB&T Distinguished Lecture at Virginia Tech University. His lecture, which centered on the problem of campus intolerance and came after he surmounted a disinvitation from Virginia Tech last year, should have been a triumph for free speech. Instead, Virginia Tech staged a public put-down of Riley. The university seized the occasion to insist again that Riley had never been invited in the first place, and it managed to forget to inform VT students that he was speaking.

First, a quick refresher. Riley was supposed to give Virginia Tech’s BB&T Distinguished Lecture last year. But, as Peter Wood and I recounted, the professor who invited Riley promptly disinvited him under pressure from the administration, which feared protests, because Riley writes as a black conservative critic of the Left. Eventually the university reversed course, but only under massive media coverage and a deluge of e-mails and calls from angry donors and alumni. And the university did so in the strained fashion of insisting, after three days of contradictory and confusing public statements, that its original invitation was never official and that it would issue Riley a new invitation — not a re-invitation.

That story plainly belied the fact that Riley had kept and publicly released his original, clearly worded invitation e-mail. Yet even at Thursday’s event, Virginia Tech insisted on having the last word. After Riley’s talk and the Q&A were over, Vijay Singal, head of the finance department, which hosts the BB&T Distinguished Lecture, stood to read a prepared statement recounting Virginia Tech’s side of the story. He claimed that “the moment we were made aware” that Riley had received an e-mail that sounded very much like an invitation, the university decided to officially “confirm” the invitation.

The spat over whether Riley did or did not receive a formal invitation last year is important because it shows Virginia Tech’s disposition toward free speech. The university was so reluctant to host a black conservative speaker that, on the most charitable interpretation, it mangled his invitation or, at worst, disinvited him. It was more concerned about its public image than about intellectual freedom, and eventually honored its invitation to Riley out of fear for its image and fundraising, not from principles of respect for its promises or for intellectual freedom. And rather than give Riley the space to start a conversation about the Left’s disregard for black conservatives and its growing disrespect for intellectual freedom, Singal hijacked Riley’s talk to redirect attention back toward the university’s story about the confusing way in which Riley eventually came to speak at Virginia Tech.

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