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Protesting Your Commencement Speaker Is an Exercise of Free Speech, Not a Rejection Of It

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In an article this week, Isaac Chotiner suggested that students who protest conservative commencement speakers embody liberal intolerance, and this “liberal intolerance is ruining debate on college campuses.” In fact, the students opposing these voices are anything but intolerant to open debate; they are actively engaged in it.

The speakers who sparked protests are Robert J. Birgenau, the chancellor of the University of California (incumbent when peaceful student protesters were hit with batons by campus police), Ayaan Hirsi Ali, seen by many as an Islamophobe, Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, and Condoleeza Rice, one of the architects of the Iraq War. In discussing them, Chotiner concedes that we all can imagine a figure we wouldn’t want sanctioned by honorary degrees or speaker fees, he adds, “but it sure seems like people are drawing [lines against these figures] hastily.”

The problem with the protests has nothing precisely to do with free speech; no one has a "right" to speak at a graduation ceremony or receive an honor from a college. But they do suggest rising levels of liberal intolerance, which is good for neither university campuses or the truly shun-worthy people in our midst. 

On the surface, Chotiner’s argument is fair; he wants students to be open to views they are likely to disagree with. But your average university term is filled with opportunities for students to debate each other and their professors, or to watch debates unfold, including debates that feature figures with whom they may disagree. Many of these debates occur in forums where students can actually respond in detail. A commencement address is not such an opportunity. It’s a rite of passage you undergo with your peers, professors, and community. The purpose of a commencement speech is, first, to honor the occasion of students transitioning out of the intellectual community and into the workforce. As a result, commencement is a highly emotional time that can be spoiled by a speaker or honoree whose values conflict with the student body’s.

Typically the choice of a commencement speaker is led by a committee made up largely of administrators but with modest, if any, student input. While there may be a few students on the committee, the student body as a whole doesn’t weigh in until the choice is final. So another way to think of this is that students who protest their universities’ commencement speakers are not opposing debate; rather, they are using the means available to them to debate the very structure of how speakers and honorees are chosen. Students complaining about out-of-touch speakers are highlighting a broader debate about perspective and values. As such, these students are indeed engaging in debate, honorably so. They are debating with the speakers' records and they are debating with their administrators' political and moral blindspots. They are debating which sort of figure may suitably send them off into their careers and adulthood. As students, they go through but one commencement, and administrators pay fees to the speakers drawn largely from the students’ tuition. Chotiner almost makes it feel like the choice is between someone many of the students will find reprehensible or no speaker at all.

The students' making their voices heard is debate. It may not be the debate the administrators or Chotiner wants it to be—a debate from which the students have largely been excluded. But when you look at the details, it’s hard to argue that these are examples of an abridgment of free speech, open debate or liberal tolerance, when, as Sienna Mann, a graduating senior at Haverford (where Birgenau was to speak), said in a phone interview, “Really, we should be celebrating these students’ using their voices.”

Correction: The piece originally stated that Birgenau was president at UC Berkeley when student protesters were pepper sprayed by campus police. Student protesters were hit with batons but were not pepper sprayed.