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Protesting Commencement Speakers: Who's PC?

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - Graduates celebrate during the 2014 graduation ceremonies at Howard University in Washington May 10, 2014. Entertainer Sean Combs delivered the commencement address and received an honorary degree in Humanities during the ceremony.

As happens almost every spring, students at a few schools have railed against their colleges’ choices of commencement speakers.  But this year’s protests have drawn more attention than usual, particularly those that led to withdrawals by Condoleeza Rice, an architect of President Bush’s foreign policy, from the Rutgers podium and by Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, at Smith.  Although conservatives have fulminated about these events more than liberals, both liberals and conservatives have condemned the student protesters whose actions led to these withdrawals.  One might say condemning these protests is almost politically correct.  Colleges and universities are ideally places that prize their openness to unpopular ideas, and exposing students to ideas that challenge their views is part of the higher education mission.  Moreover, although the First Amendment restrains only government action, the free speech values enshrined in that amendment are core to our conception of what makes America special.  These values appear threatened when groups suppress speech because they disapprove of a speaker or what a speaker has to say.

So how can one not protest the protesters?  No matter what one’s politics, it is easy to see in commencement speaker protests threats to both academic and First Amendment values.  It is no wonder that the commentariat has been quick to condemn the protests in the name of each.  Yet the widespread condemnation appears to be driven less by careful thought than by gut feelings fueled by lingering images of mobs shouting down speakers and running roughshod over the rights of both speakers and those who want to listen.  The issues are, however, more difficult than many suppose. Far from subverting core values, commencement speech protesters are acting in the best American tradition. They are answering speech with speech and seeking through argument to convert university administrators to their positions.  Those who condemn the student protesters are condemning them for exercising their first amendment rights.  Believers in the First Amendment cannot, however, have it both ways. If we value openness to controversial people and ideas, we must similarly value openness to speech that challenges what controversial people have said or done, disputes the claim that they merit being honored and argues the honor should be withdrawn.

This point of what is being argued has not only been largely overlooked, it is the crucial one.  With rare exceptions the protests we are quick to condemn neither target commencement speakers for their speech nor are they motivated by the goal of stifling what the speakers have to say.  The speech targeted is seldom that of the invitees.  Rather it is the symbolic speech of university administrators. For example, in inviting Rice and Lagarde to speak, Rutgers University and Smith College were suggesting that they are exemplars of the kinds of citizens they want their schools to produce. Moreover, if customary practice is followed Rice and Lagarde will receive honorary degrees (“with all the rights, privileges and honors thereof”) making them officially part of Rutgers’ and Smith’s extended alumni communities.  If Rice and Lagarde are also protest targets, it is not for what they have said in the past or for what they might say at commencement.  Rice is condemned for her actions, particularly with respect to the Iraq war, and Lagarde for the IMF’s actions.  Although objecting to Lagarde may seem sophomoric, especially since she may be working to change IMF policies that motivate the protests, objecting is not totally misguided. Lagarde’s invitation was extended not for her many accomplishments, but because she is the IMF head, and that is also why there is opposition to her speaking.

In seeking to have Rice and Lagarde disinvited, the protesting students were not exercising a heckler’s veto. They had not mobilized to prevent these or other speakers from taking the podium or, if they did, to shout them down. Rather the protesters through the exercise of their First Amendment rights were seeking to influence university authorities. These efforts have apparently rarely succeeded, for few schools have been persuaded to rescind invitations.  But there has been success on a practical level, since a number of targeted commencement speakers, including Rice and Lagarde, have decided on their own not to appear.  But we may not know the full story.  Almost certainly there have been behind the scenes discussions, and so-called unilateral decisions to withdraw may have been made with the blessings and perhaps even at the urging of university officials. (I would not be surprised if we should learn that Condoleeza Rice was paid at least a portion of her speaker fee).  So we cannot say that the students’ arguments or the dissatisfactions they reveal have not persuaded. 

Those condemning the protesters seldom acknowledge the special circumstances of commencement speakers.  Invitations to speak at commencement differ from almost all other invitations to speak at a school, for the audience is effectively a captive one. Moreover, graduation ceremony is more for the students than for the schools.  Students should have a right to object to speaker choices that will detract from the pleasure of the day, and a University should at least listen.   In addition, commencement addresses seldom involve the proclamation of ideas that make speakers controversial.  Rather they tend to praise learning, reflect on college life and give advice for success on the day after tomorrow.  The likely banality of such speeches, even the interesting ones, is further reasons to see student protests not as an effort to suppress ideas but as disputing a school’s choice of whom to honor.   

We see this most clearly in what is in some ways the most troublesome case, Brandeis University’s decision to rescind the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  Clarity exists because Hirsi Ali was not an invited commencement speaker; at commencement she was only to be honored with a degree, and although she had been asked to speak at some smaller gatherings, preventing these talks seemed not a goal of the protesters.  Hirsi Ali’s case is the most troublesome for many reasons.  Commencement is the student’s occasion, but the movement to cancel Ali’s invitation appears to have been faculty led.  It is also the only one of the celebrated cases where the university acceded to the protests and without regard to the speaker’s preferences rescinded an extended invitation.  What is most important, however, and what serves most to differentiate the protest against Hirsi Ali from those directed at Rice, Lagarde and others, is that objections to Hirsi Ali were not motivated by anything she had done or organizations she represented.  Objections were to her speech, pure and simple.  In rescinding her invitation Brandeis was signaling disapproval of ideas she had espoused; surely a dangerous stance for any university to take.  Compounding all of this is that in many ways Hirsi Ali appears to be an admirable person.  I, at least, could not leave her elegantly crafted autobiography feeling anything other than deep sympathy and great admiration for her and for the personal journey that brought her to the point where Brandeis might award her a degree.  Yet the protest against awarding Hirsi Ali an honorary degree and Brandeis’s decision to rescind its invitation is eminently defensible.

In a letter protesting their school’s decision to award Hirsi Ali an honorary degree, 85 Brandeis faculty members referenced statements that motivated their protest.  One was a remark in the London Evening Standard,  "Violence is inherent in Islam – it's a destructive, nihilistic cult of death. It legitimates murder…  [T]he battle against terrorism will ultimately be lost unless we realise that it's not just with extremist elements within Islam, but the ideology of Islam itself....Islam is the new fascism."  A second was a colloquy with Rogier van Bakel in which Hirsi Ali first referred to “the fire-breathing Allah who inspires jihadism and totalitarianism;" then responded to a question about whether Islam could bring about change for good by saying "Only if Islam is defeated," and finally when in a follow-up question she was asked "Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam," she responded, "No. Islam, period."

Hirsi Ali has every right to speak and defend such thoughts, but Brandeis, which has built a campus community that contains Muslim students along with its Jewish core and students of other faiths has every right to decide that it does not wish to honor a person who slanders an entire religion for the sins of some of its members.  If the decision to bestow an honorary degree was based on less than full knowledge of Hirsi Ali’s views, as it almost certainly was, the school has not just the right, but perhaps a moral duty, to retract its invitation.  An analogy might help make the point.  Suppose Brandeis had decided to award Donald Sterling an honorary degree for his philanthropy and after extending its invitation and receiving Sterling’s acceptance, his racist remarks to an erstwhile girlfriend had been revealed. Few would have quarreled with a decision to rescind the offer of an honorary degree to Sterling or seen it as an assault on free speech, and many would have argued that the school had a moral obligation to withdraw the offer of the degree. 

The analogy fails only in that Brandeis’s leaders have only themselves to blame for not knowing Hirsi Ali’s expressed views, and because of their ignorance they put Hirsi Ali in an embarrassing situation not of her own making.  But their lapses do not affect the appropriateness of rethinking the award of an honorary degree, nor does it make rescinding the invitation an attack on first amendment values.  Indeed, if the University follows through on the commitment it made to invite Hirsi Ali to speak on another occasion, it will have acquitted itself well from a First Amendment standpoint.  Knowing her views will be unpopular with many and repulsive to some, the school will nonetheless provide a venue for exposing students to them. At the same time it will avoid honoring a person whose remarks not only stereotype one of the world’s most widely shared religions but are also likely to deeply and personally offend some students in an audience that is captive to watching the honor conferred.  This too is the right decision.

To point out problems with the knee jerk condemnation of protests that lead commencement speakers to give up on their commitments and universities to rescind invitations, is not to deny troubling aspects to the student protests, their goals and their aftermath.  Although protesting announced speakers should not be confused with the heckler’s veto, the threat may be there, articulated or not, and student protests have on occasion made speech impossible.   Such occasions are assaults on First Amendment values and on the openness of universities to ideas. If this is the fear, canceling appearances and rescinding invitations is not the appropriate response. Courage requires persistence and should fears be realized prosecution may be appropriate.  It is, however, easy to exaggerate such threats.  Heckler’s vetoes are rare at commencements because students do not want to ruin their day.  Protests are more likely to take the form of boos when a speaker is introduced or actions like rising and facing away from a despised speaker. Such actions are rude perhaps, but they do not stifle speech and are less rude than calling the President a liar during his State of the Union address. Moreover, their very rudeness is a form of speech.

A more substantial concern is that the actions of some students, typically a passionate minority, may deprive other students, perhaps a large majority, of the chance to hear a person whom they admire or whose talk will add to memories of the ceremony: the President of the United States for example – always a controversial figure but one whose presence may be regarded even by passionate critics as adding glory to the graduation moment.  Some students may well have thought of Condoleeza Rice in this way.  What is at stake here is not, however, First Amendment values but democratic values and the need to strike an appropriate balance between the interests of a minority and the rights of a majority to have their preferences honored even when some are offended.  Striking this balance may not be easy.  Deeply and wrongfully offending even a small captive minority in the way Hirsi AIi’s take no prisoners condemnation of all Islam does may justify closing the door to a proposed commencement speaker, but a larger minority’s protest of an organization’s policies like that which persuaded Christine Lagarde to withdraw as Smith’s commencement speaker will typically deserve lesser respect.  In such instances, the best lesson both the speaker and university can teach is likely to come from resisting pressures to withdraw.

Focusing on democratic rather than free speech values foregrounds a theme common to the controversies that have arisen during this commencement season.  All invitations that have engendered protests seem to have been extended by administrators with little or no input from students.  But if it is the complementary values of respecting minorities while allowing majority rule that are at stake, greater democracy in selecting speakers (greater openness and increased student involvement) may be the path with the most promise.  If students were able to argue against a speaker before invitations were extended, a losing minority might be less likely to protest because their views would have been heard and rejected by their peers.  And if protests continued after invitations were issued, perhaps speakers would be less prone to withdraw, knowing that most in their audience wished to hear them.  The speech of the protesters would be countered, as it should be, with more speech.

  • Richard O. Lempert was a nonresident senior fellow with Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. During 2012-2013, he was a visiting fellow in Governence Studies at the Brookings Institution. From June 2008 until July 2011, he served as chief scientist in the Human Factors/Behavioral Sciences Division of the Science and Technology Directorate in the Department of Homeland Security; and from June 2002 through May 2006, he took leave from the University of Michigan to serve as the division director for the Social and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation. His research interests are broad, encompassing, among other things, matters related to national security, government bureaucracy, juries, race relations and social science methods.

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