In Defense of Protesting Commencement Speakers

Free speech on campuses is dead! Didn't you hear? Leftist fascists are forcing universities to cancel commencement speakers that they find objectionable. Others are getting protested. It's awful! Where is the freedom? Actually, the freedom is in the protesting.

According to multiple conservative outlets and their liberaltarian friends, this is the month in which academic freedom coughed its final dry death rattle at the hands of the left. The cause of death was the rescinding of invitations to the following commencement speakers:

  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a feminist who tells a compelling personal story about her brutal Somali upbringing and has found a profitable niche as the front-woman for white conservatives' fearmongering about Islam. She's currently on the payroll of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Brandeis wanted to give her an honorary degree, until campus protests forced a change of mind—or, as a WSJ op-ed put it, "a faculty cabal joined by (let us charitably say) ignorant students promoted the value of repression over the values of America's liberal democracy."
  • Condoleezza Rice, who was set to give the commencement speech at Rutgers until student protests convinced her to decline the invitation. Rice is an accomplished and successful academic who rose out of Alabamian obscurity and racism to famously ignore an intelligence bulletin titled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S." and later say of attacking Saddam Hussein without evidence that he had weapons of mass destruction: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
  • Robert Birgenau, a former chancellor of the University of California-Berkeley, pulled out of his commencement speech to Haverford College students after a number reminded people that Birgenau gave campus police carte blanche to roll up Occupy protesters on campus, with predictable results.
  • Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, pulled out of a planned commencement at Smith College after students started a petition protesting her selection and challenging the IMF's lending policies in developing countries.
  • Charles Murray, the AEI "scholar" who for three decades has been trying to convince us that nonwhites are just dumber than whites (and hey, these are stable categories, right?), was disinvited from a lecture last month at Azusa Pacific University after student protests—or, rather, he was censored, according to his champions. (By that definition, the next time the New Yorker rejects your Kardashian-based "Shouts & Murmurs" pitch, you should let the world know that David Remnick is a big fat censor.)

Oh, the horror! Or, as critics put it, the "bald hypocrisy on free speech and academic freedom," the "modish commitment to so-called diversity" in which "muggers prevail" and commencement speakers are "excommunicated, ignored, or banished from public life."

As Daily Beast's Olivia Nuzzi put it in her trollish complaint about students complaining, "God forbid these delicate students should be exposed to an idea or an organization with which they disagree—at college." (Pro tip: If you're positioning yourself as a defender of speech freedoms and the headline of your post tells "Fragile" people to "STFU and Listen," you're doing it wrong.)

Here's the thing: Condoleezza Rice, just to take one example, is not banished from public life. And these "delicate students" have already been exposed to her ideas. We all have. Those ideas sucked. So the upshot is that Condoleezza Rice doesn't get a paid trip to New Jersey. She still gets to write books and be on Fox News anytime she wants, whenever she can take more time off from her six-figure position as a tenured professor at Stanford.

Whose free speech do these concern-trolling, hand-wringing conservatives purport to be protecting? Soon-to-be job-seeking ex-students with high debt loads, and low marks for political participation, and little to their names but degrees with the names of their parent institutions? Or powerful captains of industry, politics and media who are paid for the chance to add to their home office's "walls of me" and blow hot platitudes over the mortar boarded heads of their young charges?

And blow they do. Let's face it, commencement addresses suck, and they suck in direct proportion to the cultural standing of the speaker. The more famous your commencement addressor is, the likelier their address is to be a warmed-over serving of wilted TED Talks punch lines. Tom Friedmanesque yarns. If you're really lucky, maybe your school will actually get Tom Friedman, instead of a starchy simulacrum of Tom Friedman.

But let's not even bother with that tack, because being denied a chance to speak at a graduation ceremony is not an infringement on your free speech. Free speech might entail an invitation to speak to a voluntary audience and then have alternative viewpoints offered by other speakers, and then perhaps engage in a dialogue over those ideas. This is not how commencement speeches work. If a commencement address is free speech, then so is a seven-hour harangue by Fidel Castro to Cuban citizens who are too scared to get up and leave the auditorium to pee.

A commencement address is the opposite of free. It is paid speech. Paid speech that, just like the honorary degree that accompanies it, associates the recipient with the granting institution as if by royal decree. It's entirely legitimate for faculty and students, who are already associated with the institution by their works and their merits, to dispute whether an honoree is also worthy of that association.

Lest you doubt that all of the power is in the hands of the speakers and not the listeners, consider how much they make to deliver a shitty speech:

Commencement fees range from a couple of thousand dollars to over $100,000. Katie Couric received an astonishing $110,000 to deliver the commencement address at the University of Oklahoma in 2006. Rudy Giuliani, a year earlier, charged $75,000 to speak at High Point University. Giuliani reputedly now gets about $100,000 plus a private jet for a speech. In 2007 Senator John Edwards received $55,000 for a speech at the University of California at Davis. The rates have probably increased significantly with inflation in recent years.

Rutgers, which Rice skipped out on this year, famously paid Snooki more than Toni Morrison to give one of these bullshit speeches a few years back.

And Morrison made $30,000.

All this, as campus raises are getting frozen, student debt levels are increasing without bound, and the only people who are making money at the academic game are the university administrators and the twits they anoint as commencement speakers.

Contrast that orgiastic explosion of privilege with the status of the commencement audience. Unless they become full-time Tea Partiers or Occupiers or unpaid bloggers—all of which are possible, given the hiring atmosphere for recent graduates—this is the last time for a long time that most of these students will be able to protest anything loudly and publicly. Career propriety, and the business of being employed and full-time grownups, don't generally encourage outspoken advocacy.

Besides, campus protest is not just a "leftist" game. President Obama gets protested everywhere, including campuses, by liberals and conservatives—particularly by anti-abortion members of the Notre Dame community when he gave a commencement address there in 2009. I personally watched my classmates at the Naval Academy grumble and hiss at Madeleine Albright, the sitting secretary of state, during a campus lecture, not long after they fawned over William J. Bennett and the umpteenth lecture from John McCain, who ought to be on faculty, he's there so often.

The Nation's Michelle Goldberg laments these "anti-liberal left" campus protests against chiefly conservative speakers because, she says, there will come a time when liberal opinions are unpopular and will need protection from vocal conservatives on campus, which may not be forthcoming.

I could respond that sometimes unpopular opinions deserve to be unpopular. But that would be to grant somehow that Rice, or Ali, or Birgenau, or any of the professional speakers on the commencement circuit, left or right, are oppressed political minorities, simply because they're not in office right now. They are not oppressed speakers, by virtue of the very fact that well-financed universities see fit to pay them for their presence at graduation ceremonies.

The choice to elevate someone to that platform, literally and metaphorically, is a powerful one, and it's wasted on the already-powerful—especially when those already-powerful speakers got their power through controversial, sometimes seemingly dishonest or damaging or dunderheaded means.

What we really should do is get rid of the platform. Make commencements about the students, not the speakers, by getting rid of the speakers. All of them.

But until we get rid of them all, let's keep protesting them. Just don't call in any bomb threats or anything.

[Photo credit: AP]