In Defense of Student Commencement Protests

Has America entered a Bizarro world in which money equals speech but speech itself gets labeled intimidation?

That's not a far-fetched conclusion to draw in a political culture that has unleashed campaign spending and given it First Amendment protection while at the same time branding the supposed free speech of college students as bullying, tyranny, censorship, and intolerance.

Anyone following American politics knows that the Roberts Supreme Court has made the act of spending money the equivalent of expressing one's views. Through its decisions in the Citizens United and McCutcheon cases, the Court granted those with great wealth an unparalleled ability to shape our public debate and influence our elections simply by opening their wallets.

One would think that a political system with such an overly broad view of speech would embrace the raucous and unkempt culture of real and actual speech that animates a democracy.

But when some ragtag students organize petition campaigns to protest commencement speakers whose very values or actions contradict the spirit of the degree they are receiving, they are told to stifle their tantrums and, as the Daily Beast put it, "STFU."

The irony is that these students are being told to swallow their concerns, sit on their hands, and silence their protests all in the name of free speech.

Perhaps if they had money, their voice would be welcome.

The commencement tempest this year has taken place at three schools: Rutgers, Smith and Haverford. At each, students simply have spoken out against the selection of speakers that were foisted on their graduation ceremonies by college administrators or wealthy trustees. And at each, the invited speakers themselves withdrew after students leveled their criticism.

At Rutgers, it was for a simple but profound reason that 150 or so students objected to Condoleezza Rice as their commencement speaker (and her cool $35,000 fee): She lied to the American people about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, leading to an unjust war and unjustifiable carnage. Deceiving us into the War in Iraq remains the most consequential political scandal of their generation.

The hundreds of Smith students who signed a petition against International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde had no personal beef with her, but they wondered whether their graduation should be commemorated by a speaker whose institution, according to these students, perpetuates inequality and worsens poverty worldwide.

About 40 Haverford students and three professors asked whether former Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgenau, who condoned excessive force and beatings against peaceful Occupy Wall Street protesters, was the best choice to embody their school's nonviolent Quaker tradition.

That's about it -- students spoke out and took a stand.

How ironic that the editorial writers and self-appointed thought leaders who often pillory today's youth for apathy and narcissism are now criticizing them for challenging people or institutions that they see as perpetuating or excusing injustice.

"Commencement bigots" is how a New York Times headline describes them. The Washington Post accuses these students of "intolerance." Haverford's replacement speaker used his own address to label them "arrogant" and "immature." To these critics, universities have become "havens of the closed minded" where "young thought police [use] their powers to enforce left-wing purity."

They warn that students who don't want to hear a particular speaker's 20-minute commencement address will graduate onto a benighted island of insularity and ignorance - as if they hadn't learned a thing or studied a different perspective in four years of college.

How little these critics understand today's young people -- and today's college campuses.

America's youth now have access -- literally in the palm of their hands -- to more viewpoints and information than any generation in history. Colleges routinely invite ideologically diverse speakers who generally attract a wide range of students and little controversy.

Rutgers this year screened the Mitt Romney documentary, Mitt, and hosted talks by a leading conservative journalist and a former Republican senator. My own university sponsored Dick Cheney among other GOP headliners.

But who speaks at commencement is different. This isn't about a lecture or opinion. Graduation is a special and personal event for these young people. It's a formal farewell to their collegiate home, a rite of passage as memorable to many as the day they get married or start their first job.

From their perspective, they deserve a speaker who either exemplifies or at least doesn't violate the values of their education and institution. They want inspiration, not vexation.

Most schools actually get it, which is why -- despite these momentary media brouhahas -- there are so few commencement rumbles at the 2,500 four-year colleges and universities each year. We can hope that a Brigham Young or Texas A&M would invite Rep. Nancy Pelosi or the atheist Richard Dawkins to give a lecture on campus, but don't expect to see them at graduation anytime soon.

To voice an opinion on whom to invite isn't censorship or intimidation. It's simply free speech. Because administrators or trustees invite someone doesn't mean students should blindly accept it. As long as these students are making informed arguments against the proposed speaker, not speaking up would have been the real insult to their education.

It's then up to the speaker to ignore them, engage them, or withdraw. Public life is not friction free, no one is above criticism, and no one is entitled to give a commencement speech.

When a handful of billionaires pour their riches into politics to sway elections and get their way, that's free speech in America. But when a bunch of earnest students petition or rally against a speaker for their own graduation, that's bullying and censorship.

As Lewis Carroll once said, "It would be so nice if something made sense for a change."