Campus Free Speech

Don't Silence Graduation Speakers

The best response to allegedly villainous speakers is to let them speak and make them wish they hadn't.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali
International Students' Committee

"Oh, that my enemy would write a book," goes the old wish, coined by someone who knew there is no better way to expose fools than through their own words. It's an idea that deserves consideration from the college students and faculty unhappy with their schools' choice in commencement speakers.

The usual response to such invitations is to demand that they be revoked. This year, critics cowed Brandeis into yanking its offer to anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Outrage at Rutgers prompted former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to withdraw, and when howls when up at Smith, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde suddenly found better things to do.

Former University of California, Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau pulled out at Haverford over criticism of his university police's use of batons and pepper spray on Occupy Wall Street demonstrators. Data from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education show that incidents like these have gotten far more common over the past decade.

It's understandable that students might prefer not to share their big day with someone who has said or done things that they find grossly objectionable. But forcing them out or driving them away is the wrong response for all sorts of reasons.

One is that hecklers shouldn't have a veto in what is supposed to be a place of free inquiry. When Skidmore College issued an invitation to a former mining company executive, a student who opposed it told a faculty meeting, "It's my commencement. Not hers. Or yours." Actually, it belongs to Skidmore, not the student, who is merely a temporary member of the college community. If you detest whom your school invited, maybe you chose the wrong school.

Disinviting also carries the stain of censorship, implying that college graduates should not have to endure views that contradict their own. But what's the point of education if it doesn't confer the thinking skills to evaluate and reject wrong views?

Blocking a speaker deprives the critics of the chance to respond in a persuasive and forceful way. When Rice is induced to stay away from Rutgers, the topic of conversation is whether her critics had a right to demand her absence. Had she shown up, they could have focused attention on a far more important issue: her culpability in the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

Likewise with Birgeneau and Lagarde. You think they are bad actors? In their absence, most of the people attending those commencements will remain ignorant of their records.

If Ali dared to repeat her slander that Muslims all belong to the same "nihilistic cult of death," she would repel far more listeners than she would persuade. Anytime a speaker with a controversial record comes to campus, it's a gala opportunity to remind the audience of what they have to account for.

Why silence speakers when you can denounce or even shame them? When President Barack Obama spoke at Notre Dame in 2009, anti-abortion advocates flocked to condemn his policies. A plane pulled a banner picturing the remains of a fetus with the message: "10 Week Abortion."

At Sen. Rick Santorum's 2003 appearance at St. Joseph's University, some students attached rainbow-colored tassels to their mortarboards in a silent show of support for gay rights. At the UC Berkeley law school ceremony in 2011, protesters handed out orange ribbons to express outrage at former Bush administration official John Yoo's complicity in torture.

When former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke to graduating students at Syracuse in 2002, some waved their wallets—reminding him of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Bronx man killed by a hail of police bullets after he reached into his jacket and pulled out a billfold.

It wouldn't be hard to find provocative ways to disavow some of this year's invitees while allowing them to say their piece. Birgeneau's critics could splatter their gowns with yellow paint to match the pepper spray used on seated demonstrators.

Rice's detractors might sport atomic symbols to evoke the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq didn't have. Islamic students and parents could have greeted Ali with signs saying, "This is what a peace-loving Muslim looks like."

The best response to allegedly villainous speakers is not to turn them into martyrs by denying them a forum. The best response is to let them speak and make them wish they hadn't.

NEXT: Brickbat: Don't Go

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  1. I wish my school had disinvited President Bubba when he spoke. I can’t remember what he droned on about, but I dod remember that the Japanese guy why were giving an honorary doctorate to gave a far better speech. and I can’t even remember the Japanese guy’s name. It wasn’t offensive so much as it was bland and boring. It was as if he was just repeating to himself ‘paycheck, paycheck, paycheck…’ and put no real thought or effort into it despite his exhorbinate speaking fee.

  2. All I remember about my college graduation is the enjoying the worst hangover of my life while standing in the hot sun listening to some windbag drone on.

    1. Sincere question. Why does anyone go to the graduation ceremony at all?

      I just had my diploma mailed to me. The only reason I even went to my high school graduation was because my mother and grandmother wanted to see it. That seemed interminable and we had a small class (somewhere around 200).

      I couldn’t imagine having to sit through an entire college graduation.

      My college graduation day was spent drinking at a kegger and laughing at my fellow graduates as they staggered in from their ordeal in the Memphis sun.

      1. I was the first person in my family to get a degree. Not going to commencement would have been way more of a pain in the ass than going was.

      2. The only reason I even went to my high school graduation was because my mother and grandmother wanted to see it

        That’s the reason right there.

        My brother went to VMI. The speeches were short, and they spent 20 seconds per cadet on the actual diploma process. I recommend sending your sons there. It produces fine young men, and the total length of the ceremony will be about 2 and a half hours.

        1. I think length of commencement exercise is a very important consideration when choosing a university.

      3. people go because it’s a milestone of sorts and parents get pleasure from watching their child graduate. Everything’s not about you. The same reason people go to college graduations is the reason stated for your high school event.

  3. The three times I graduated, I’m reasonably sure the speakers’ names were Professor Morpheus, Doctor Hypnos and Docent Somnus.

  4. On another forum I visit, somebody posted a different article about commencement speakers being disinvited, and some idiot had the derp to suggest it was the “Christians” who would likely protest a speech by the Dalai Lama.

    1. Well, Christian students at Liberty University did protest (or complain) when Romney, a Mormon, was chosen to give a commencement there.…..-response/

      1. Also, pro-life student groups often protest the choice of pro-choice commencement speaker, common at Catholic universities. In addition to the Obama flap mentioned in the article, Boston College had a protest when they invited Ireland’s PM (who advocated liberalizing abortion law) and a protest is planned for their graduation today over John Kerry’s choice.…..on-league/

        You do not hear about protests about commencement speakers from the right as much. Perhaps because they are less successful in getting the speaker disinvited, perhaps because there is not the element of hypocrisy as present in some eyes.

        1. One of these things is not like the other. One of these things is not the same.

          1. What do you think is the difference?

            1. Private versus public.

              1. Brandies and Skidmore are private.

                1. You posted about Liberty and BC, both of which are private. But keep squirming.

      2. “Well, Christian students at Liberty University did protest (or complain) when Romney, a Mormon, was chosen to give a commencement there.”

        They posted on Facebook and a few didn’t attend the commencement. Trying to compare this reaction with the more recent events is an absurd stretch.

        You are grasping at fucking straws.

  5. Tolerance means not tolerating intolerance.

  6. What if these speakers say something with which you disagree? Or, even worse, use trigger words? It’s just not worth the risk.

  7. Are commencements mandatory for getting a degree?

    1. One of the attendees at mine put it this way “The piece of paper is for the graduate, the ceremony is for the families”.

    2. I never went to my college graduation. Had no desire to. Still got my diploma in the mail. So no.

    3. Not in my experience (I skipped mine and have the degree). But I suppose a school could adopt such a policy if it wanted to.

  8. “When Skidmore College issued an invitation to a former mining company executive, a student who opposed it told a faculty meeting, “It’s my commencement. Not hers. Or yours.” Actually, it belongs to Skidmore, not the student, who is merely a temporary member of the college community.”

    I do not buy this argument. The students (well, for many their parents) are the customers of the business. Customers have a right to complain about the product and service (of course business can tell them to take the proverbial hike, but a business that tells too many to do so will not fare well). This does not defend giving a few overly sensitive customers a heckler’s veto over something many of the other customers want, but it is silly to say they can not comment on the product.

    1. Where in your quote does it say customers can’t comment on the product?

      1. The idea that the commencement belongs to Skidmore, not the student suggested that to me. Shouldn’t the customer be free to say ‘hey, I do not want that in my service.’

        1. Yeah. And they’re as free not to attend as they are to comment. Hell, maybe the comments will change someone’s mind, but that doesn’t make it the students’ product.

          1. It is not the student’s product in some sense, but in another it is for the students, who are the customers. I guess if you want you could say that McDonald’s hamburgers are McDonald’s products, not the customers, but if they kept making them in ways the customers did not like they would be ‘dead right’ about that.

            1. Look, you claimed that someone said they couldn’t comment. You can play your fatuous word games all day and it doesn’t change the fact that you’re doing nothing but beating the crap out of a strawman. No one said they couldn’t comment. Period.

              1. The entire article is about how students should not lobby to have someone disinvited or not invited in the first place. Doesn’t that involve ‘commenting?’

    2. So Skidmore only had 1 person graduating that year? Seems like a really small school.

      I’m assuming that is the case because they said “It’s my commencement.”

      If there were other students (or customers) then wouldn’t that student have to say it is “their” commencement? And possibly make allowances for a ceremony that is geared toward the general student body and not just them.

      Yes, they may be customers, but if you begin tailoring your product to meet the whims of your fringe elements, you may find you lose more customers than you gain.

      1. I think you may be being a bit pedantic. Would it have been more technically accurate to say ‘their’ or ‘our’ commencement? Sure. But have you never heard someone tell, say, a government employee ‘hey, don’t talk to me like that, I am your boss.’ Do you jump in and say ‘oh no, good sir, all taxpayers are the boss, so you should have said I am one of many taxpayers for whom you work for.’

    3. the graduation ceremony is not the product; the actual education is. Ceremonies are often far more for grads’ families than those graduating.

      1. Grads families usually are the paying customer, and things for them are certainly part of the product.

  9. I suppose schools could minimize controversy by having a notable graduate do the speech, or they could just tell the malcontents in their ranks to shut the hell up, that not everything in life is about them or their feelz, and that part of college is to spawn thinking. And yes, I laughed out loud at the third part of that.

  10. I am, in a way, impressed by Chapman’s ability to be wrong about pretty much everything.

    *If* you have an invited speaker at an event honoring your graduates, why not respect, or at least put up with, the speaker and focus on the real purpose of the ceremony. Consider not waving bloody hands or other lefty-style political theater gestures.

    But inviting speakers isn’t about free speech – or if it is, it’s about the *institutional* free speech of the college, which gets to choose to honor whom it will. They preferably choose someone who can show graduates “this is the kind of prestigious person we can get to speak to you” and to say “here is someone who did great things.”

    If the viewpoint or behavior of a speaker can’t even be considered, then why didn’t colleges invite the late William Shockley as a graduation speaker? He had a Nobel Prize, and the fact that he advocated eugenics shouldn’t factor into the decision whether to invite him. Or why didn’t Brandeis ever invite Kurt Waldheim, a prestigious statesman?

    Of course, Rice is far more prestigious and worthy of honor than the people I mentioned – and the minority of students who disagreed with her didn’t do so out of antiwar zeal, but because BOOSH.

  11. My commencement featured the late leftwing columnist Carl Rowan. As I was handed my degree I turned to him and gave him a copy of “Capitalism the Unknown Ideal.” He took it with him as it wasn’t under his chair after the vips processed out.

  12. If I have to listen to someone bloviate, I’d rather listen to someone famous whom I hate than a nonentity whose opinions are unobjectionable.


  13. I think universities should eliminate all guest speakers and honorary doctorate speakers.

    The ceremony is supposed to be about the graduates, none of them want to listen to someone talk about how smart they are. They just want to walk and get the hell out of there. Seriously, I just got my Ph.D. a few weeks ago, and we were collectively ignoring the speakers so hard that when we were supposed to stand up literally NONE of us even heard the instruction.

  14. Having gone through more than one college/university graduation ceremony myself, I can’t imagine anything less memorable than a graduation speaker.

    I was so eager to get my degree and get out of there, that I can’t even remember who the speaker was, much less the subject of their speech.

    Whoever delivers the graduation address at any university anywhere usually speaks in general terms anyway. The only speech I do remember was attending the recent high school graduation of a family friend, where the guest speaker talked about the ever present threat and return of the witch hunts of the 1950s.

    The speech was very informative and excellent and right on target for what is going on now in this country. It would not surprise me on the least if this country sees another such decade (or two) of that type in this century. I suspect that this time it will even be worse.

  15. Instead of worrying about who gets invited to speak or not, look at it this way. When Ron Paul was schooling neocon Giuliani on foreign policy in that 2007 debate, whose side were you on? Then consider which side said speaker is on.

    and why do people still listen to that neocon charlatan Ali? She should have gone the way of snake oil salesmen by now. Every time she opens her mouth bovine excrement comes out. Don’t get me wrong Islam is stupid just like any other belief of supernatural nonsense but I don’t go checking my closet or looking under my bed for them every night before I go to bed or voting my civil liberties away to protect myself from them just like the Germans at one time gave up their civil liberties because they thought Jews were conspiring against them.

    1. It sounds like you are saying she is too paranoid about Islam monsters coming after her. Without agreeing with anything else she says, I think she, of all people, should be checking underneath her bed and in her closet every night.

    2. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a very brave woman who has suffered greatly from the constant persecution of Islam, as have millions of other women. I would advise you to read this interview she gave to Sam Harris:…..lamophobia

  16. “Skidmore College”

    alright, who’s the jokester?

  17. This article’s premise is risible. A commencement address is not a debate, or the free exchange of ideas. It is one-way communication.

    Students or parents who object to a commencement speaker have a much better opportunity to express their views by protesting the choice of speaker ahead of time, perhaps drawing attention to things the speaker will wish to avoid. Supporters of said speaker will have the same opportunity, in the defense.

    1. Sock Monkey,
      The problem is that if the defense is at all conservative, there will be limited opportunity to be heard.

  18. College administrators have the right to exclude speakers, especially in private universities, but it really annoys me that they are cowed by students and by political correctness. Students should have a little humility and learn to open their minds and ears, something very few of them actually learn in college. In fact, they learn the opposite: that they shouldn’t have to ever hear something that they tend to disagree with. Protesting against speakers proves this.
    Little childish demonstrations during the speeches are unspeakably rude and are at best are simply self-indulgent.

    College should be about ACTUAL critical thinking. It should be about civility and learning an assorted array of ideas. The reason this issue irritates me so much is that it’s just one more indication of the abject failure of universities in this country to accomplish anything POSITIVE. (I know whereof I speak, having taught in a public university for the past 25 years.)

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