MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

President Obama Tells Graduates to Embrace Free Speech, But He Hasn't Always Done the Same

The Obama administration's record on free expression lies in contrast with the president's advice to college kids.

Let them talk.WhiteHouse.gov

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. 

Photo Credit: WhiteHouse.gov

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Mainer2||

    What an annoying little twerp. Whence his reputation as a great orator ?

  • Adans smith||

    Really,he always sounds like he's just reading script,like most. Very little true emotion and nothing off the cuff.Churchill he's not. Or Reagan for that matter. Then again he's talking about 'correct' speech.

  • ||

    Well, Reagan was a professional actor.

  • Adans smith||

    True but,'what was that guy's beef' was pretty good.And he had to put his foot down to get 'tear down this wall' into his speech.He may have been a show man,and I didn't agree with him on everything [ drug war ] .He did show the USSR the door because he believed,rightly,they could not compete with us,on any scale.

  • Idaho Bob||

    He doesn't want to get booed off stage when he's charging $250K per speech in the next few years.

  • ||

    No, the types of people who will come to see those speeches won't care if he just read them the phone book.

  • Quixote||

    I must vehemently protest against these outrageous assertions. The president merely made it clear that all Americans have the right to politely express their views, even if some of us find those views offensive. The administration has appropriately overseen a great national effort to definitively stop the treacherous whistle-blowers and the "parodists" who have been destroying the unity of our great society. There was no excuse, legal or otherwise, for the "parody" film that provoked the Benghazi attacks (as our secretary of state made clear at the time), just as there is no excuse — despite the preposterous "First Amendment dissent" of a single, isolated, liberal judge — for sending out inappropriately deadpan "Gmail confessions" insidiously mocking a distinguished university department chairman. See the documentation of America's leading criminal "satire" case at:

    http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • Playrighter||

    It would be interesting to see how Obama would react to the same sort of "reception" Trump regularly gets.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    "Now that I've whipped you chuckleheads into an authoritarian, partisan frenzy and my Justice Department has mandated Title IX Star Courts be instituted to weed out wrongthink and verbal rape, don't forget to respect free speech!"

  • BYODB||

    Do as I say, not as I've told you to do! Unless you think I thought you should, in which case don't unless told otherwise. In that case, do it until you feel comfortable not doing it again then don't.


    Got it kids? Good!

  • DOOMco||

    Obama a hypocrite? No way.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Let them talk. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability.

    And next thing you know they're hiding out in Russia and talking anyway.

  • BYODB||

    Wait, I thought that if they were a victim they get special status and extra coddling?

    I'm getting mixed messages here. Is he not calling out the entire base of the Democrat party? I guess he can do that now since he's essentially set for life.

    It is kind of weird hearing those words form the mouth of a guy that's profited so much from victim driven politics. Doubly so given his administrations track record on leak prosecutions, who promised a new age of government transparency but delivered a locked book in a lead box.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    If Mr. Obama believed a damned word of what he was saying, he could order his own Education Department's Office of Civil Rights to rescind the "Dear Colleague" letter. He hasn't done so. This should tell everyone everything they need to know.

  • hpearce||

    Freedom of speech, press, choice, expression and other similar rights are ALL dependent on accepting and supporting freedom of association - something that fake political "liberals" have a terrible record on particularly when it comes to economic associations.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    How soon until supposedly serious journalists are begging this droopy sac to run for a third term so that he can save us from the Trump/Clinton disaster?

  • SoCal Deathmarch||

    Exactly one second after Hillary gets indicted.

  • Adans smith||

    'You can do it my nigga'!

  • Loki||

    "If only those EVUL OBSTRUKSHONIST TEATHUGLIKKKANZ in Congress would repeal the 22nd amendment so that Dear Leader can save us from the Trumpacolypse..." /Derp

  • FreeRadical||

    And you can't facetiously talk about throwing politicians into woodchippers either.

  • Citizen X||

    Of course, "hate speech" is not free speech, so don't be saying stuff that other people hate.

  • hpearce||

    I found your comment very hateful of the the concept of free speech :)

  • Loki||

    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.
    ...
    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."

    The problem is, most people aren't well informed enough to know about all of that. All they see/ hear is Obama praising free speech during a commencement address. They never see or hear about all the other shit that he actually DOES, just the nice words that he SAYS.

  • The Grinch||

    Great in what ways, specifically?

  • retiredfire||

    HiLIARy and Mr. Trumpery, I understand but when did Ted Cruz advocate doing anything to the 1A?

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Oh course jug ears paid lip service to free speech. Progressives ALWAYS pay lip service to free speech, usually right before they destroy somebody for exercising same.

  • Chipwooder||

    BTW, this speech also contained a passage lecturing the students that they didn't get where they are because of hard work, but because of luck. No, really:

    "We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.

    And that means we have to not only question the world as it is, and stand up for those African Americans who haven’t been so lucky — because, yes, you’ve worked hard, but you’ve also been lucky. That’s a pet peeve of mine: People who have been successful and don’t realize they’ve been lucky. That God may have blessed them; it wasn’t nothing you did. So don’t have an attitude."

    So you STILL didn't build that, you lucky assholes!

  • Brochettaward||

    I think it's just the projection of a guy who has never actually worked hard in his life, and basically did luck his way into the White House by being in the right places at the right times.

  • Haha, charade you are||

    "And that means we have to not only question the world as it is, and stand up for those African Americans who haven’t been so lucky — because, yes, you’ve worked hard, but you’ve also been lucky".

    Like the governmental regulations keeping them from starting their own businesses, Mr. President?

  • ||

    it wasn’t nothing you did.

    ain't no thing, baby.

  • kimberlyhrogers||

    my neighbor's mother-in-law makes $75 hourly on the laptop . She has been out of a job for five months but last month her income was $21953 just working on the laptop for a few hours.

    try this website ➜➜➜➜➜➜➜➜➜ http://www.richi8.com

  • Eye8apie||

    If you like your free speech, you can keep your free speech.

  • WuzYoungOnceToo||

    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.

    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."

    So basically he's saying, "Yeah, you're right about everything and those people you disagree with and are trying to silence are just babbling idiots, but humor them anyway." At no point is there anything even remotely resembling, "And entertain the possibility that there might be at least some merit to their views, and that you might actually be a little bit wrong about something that you disagree with them on."

  • ||

    I'm making over $9k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. This is what I do.... Go to tech tab for work detail..

    CLICK THIS LINK===== http://www.cashapp24.com/

  • John Worthington||

    Exactly. Obama's administration has "shut out" whistleblowers, pro-Palestinian activists and virtually anyone that challenges Washington's hegemony. And he has the audacity, as a purportedly liberal president, to utilize right-wing rhetoric to bash college students for shutting out differing opinions (based on little to no evidence). What a hypocrite.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online