While USC’s commencement was more than a month ago, college graduation season is in full swing across the country. And with all the ceremonies comes a new element of the “free speech crisis” debate: censoring commencement speakers. Several colleges have struggled with faculty and students protesting their colleges’ speaker selections.
The organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reports that there have been at least 145 instances of schools pulling the plug on commencement speakers since 1987, with almost 100 of those coming within the last five years.
Butler University in 2010 refused to host Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts because he is “too controversial.” Conservative commentator Ann Coulter was asked not to speak at Fordham University in 2012. Politicians Tom Tancredo, Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney have all faced student complaints. Even Hillary Clinton was uninvited from the College of St. Catherine in 2008.
Even USC hasn’t been able to dodge the action. The Daily Trojan reported that some students were unhappy with the selection of undergraduate commencement speaker Congresswoman Karen Bass because they didn’t want a political speaker. USC Gould graduates and faculty members managed to topple the scheduled talk by Jeh Johnson, secretary of homeland security under President Obama. Protesting a speech is fine, but censoring is not.
This year, New York University invited Steven Thrasher, an alumnus of their doctorate program, to deliver a commencement speech. In what was reported as a deviation from the script, Thrasher promoted and advocated his position to boycott, divest, and sanction what he called the “apartheid State of Israel.”
If this were any other campus speaker, even at USC, it wouldn’t have elicited much of a reaction. Obviously, most would not endorse the speaker’s message, nor would they be proud to say they hosted him and provided a platform for him. But fighting to censor his speech isn’t a good idea. Those who do not know their opponent’s arguments do not completely understand their own. Debate is a vital component of a stimulating educational experience.
That said, a commencement speech doesn’t allow time for debate. It is, in essence, a message that the hosting university believes would be inspirational to students. The difference between censoring an on-campus speaker and a commencement speaker is non-existent.
This isn’t to say that universities should actively search for provocative speakers and ask them to speak about controversial topics. Ultimately, a commencement speech is about, well, commencement —beginning a new phase of life. And that should be the main subject of any speech. Not a heavily politicized debate.
There is a certain level of tact and awareness required of graduation speakers. Obviously, controversial speech should not be off-limits in a commencement speech, but a strong one probably calls more for inspiration, not provocation.
There will always be someone who disagrees with the politics of any speaker and maybe even part of the content of the speech itself. But it’s possible to still listen — and maybe even gain something — from paying attention. Malcolm X pointed this out in the beginning of his “The Ballot or The Bullet” speech: “Mr. Moderator, Brother Lomax, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies. I just can’t believe everyone in here is a friend, and I don’t want to leave anybody out.”
If one finds themselves as one of these “enemies,” they have actions to take: condemn the speech, point out its fallacies and reveal its idiocy. But banning it based solely on offensiveness or disagreement is wrong; it’s too subjective. If we choose to ban one speaker, we must ban all speakers. And if we refuse to ban one, we must refuse to ban any.