During his commencement speech at Howard University this past weekend, President Obama advised the graduates to embrace a robust exchange of ideas, and to confront "ridiculous or offensive" viewpoints with debate and argument rather than trying to shut them down.
The president specifically addressed the "trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view" or disrupting rallies featuring objectionable speakers. Obama relayed advice he says his grandmother gave him, "Every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. Let them talk. If you don't, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability."
Obama acknowledged that there are times when "injustice" will demand an appropriately forceful response, but he encouraged the graduates to "have the confidence" in the "rightness of your position" to challenge opposing viewpoints, but to also "listen…engage…learn" from them.
For the better part of the past year, President Obama has repeatedly beaten this drum. He decried "militant political correctness" on college campuses as a "a recipe for dogmatism" in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopolous. He told a high school student in Iowa that he didn't believe young people needed to be "coddled and protected from different points of view." In an interview with NPR, Obama said, "unwillingness to hear other points of view can be as unhealthy on the left as on the right."
These words coming from America's first black president matter, particularly in the context of anti-racism and social justice. As the president himself said to ABC:
The civil rights movement happened because there was civil disobedience, because people were willing to go to jail, because there were events like Bloody Sunday, but it was also because the leadership of the movement consistently stayed open to the possibility of reconciliation and sought to understand the views, even views that were appalling to them, of the other side.
Obama's admonition to young people to embrace free speech, even if it means hurt feelings and occasional unpleasantness, is admirable. But in the seven-plus years of his presidency, Obama hasn't always been so resolute in his defense of free expression as he was when discouraging the "safe spaces" mindset among college kids.
The Obama administration has increasingly pushed for draconian speech codes on campuses, including ones that would allow people to be punished for offending any one for any reason at all, and his Department of Education's aggressive enforcement of supposed Title IX violations regarding sexual harassment has led to professors such as Laura Kipnis being forced to sit through an administrative "inquisition" over an essay a few students didn't like.
Following the January 2015 massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, President Obama defended the "universal belief in the freedom of expression," adding, "The fact that this was an attack on journalists, an attack on our free press, also underscores that these terrorists fear freedom of speech and freedom of the press."
Standing up for the right of free expression in the face of fanatical religious violence is to be lauded, but it runs counter to the administration's leaning on Google to censor the Youtube video "Innocence of Muslims," which was repeatedly and falsely blamed by Obama administration officials for sparking the deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. Obama's call to condemn a stupid, irrelevant, amateurish anti-Muslim movie trailer led to serious calls to limit freedom of speech for the good of humanity and "the need for order."
Furthermore, defending a free press as an essential component of free expression is all well and good, but this administration has been notoriously hostile to the press, as former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. wrote in his 2013 report for the Committee to Protect Journalists. At a press conference announcing the report, Downie said, "The Obama administration's aggressive war on leaks and its determined efforts to control information that the news media needs to hold the government accountable for its actions are without equal since the Nixon administration."
Despite its claims to the contrary, the administration has been notoriously un-transparent with both the press and the public, has cracked down on "unauthorized contacts with reporters," and prosecuted more whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act more than all previous presidents combined, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
President Obama told the Howard graduates, "Don't try to shut folks out, don't try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them."
It's good advice, and a shame he hasn't lived by it during his tenure as commander-in-chief.