Students at Four Colleges Have Shut Down Their Commencement Speakers. It's a Victory for Free Speech

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reacts to the delegates as she arrives to address the Republican National Conventi
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reacts to the delegates as she arrives to address the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Do you remember the speech given at your commencement? I remember the speaker at mine. He was David McCullough, an historian prominent on the bookshelves of dads. The year before, the senior class was treated to the wisdom of Henry Winkler, whose announcement occasioned a wave of snooty grumbling. The grumbling was quickly disavowed once he gave a warm and witty speech, and again years later when he showed up on Arrested Development.

Now students at four colleges have enlivened graduation day by objecting to their commencement speakers. Condoleezza Rice withdrew from speaking at Rutgers University, UC-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau from Haverford College, and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde from Smith College. Students at Harvard University's School of Education have protested the selection of Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston.

The worriers worried. How can anyone learn anything at college if disagreeable ideas can't get a hearing? In the New York Times, Timothy Egan called the protestors "bigots." The New Republic warned of "rising liberal intolerance," because that's what it does. Worst of all, Haverford's replacement for Birgeneau, former Princeton president William Bowen, said the students should have encouraged Birgeneau "to come and engage in a genuine discussion." I know you want to polish off that pony keg, but who's up for one more seminar before you hit the road?

As a graduating senior might still somewhere say: chillax, bro. No ideas get a hearing on graduation day. The sound systems aren't good enough. The audience wants to figure out how to get through post-ceremony lunch without mom and dad chucking their mimosas at each other. They'll miss any nuance softer than a dubstep drop.

Commencement speeches only become notable if they get turned into viral videos (Steve Jobs) or stocking-stuffer paperbacks (David Foster Wallace, George Saunders). The most famous one of all time, "Sunscreen," wasn't even delivered as a commencement speech, but was printed in a newspaper column by a writer who really wanted people to wear more sunscreen.

Commencement speeches honor the graduates. They flatter their parents that the bills were worth it. To the speakers, they offer credibility, and in many cases cash (Rice reportedly turned down a $35,000 speaker's fee). To wear the mantle of a commencement speaker is to be sworn in as a village elder, and bump up your quote to boot.

Students have every right to object to the day they worked for being used to conduct ideological warfare. They have every right to add silly accessories to their caps or subtract underthings from their gowns rather than gird themselves for rebuttal. This year, a few of them looked at this economy of cash and prestige asked what, in each case, would our name and money have bought?

With Rice, an architect of a disastrous war and occupation. In Birgeneau, an educator whose pedagogy includes the application of batons to campus protestors. (Students may have feared less for their sensitive minds than for their skulls.) With Lagarde and Johnston, the students' actions are harder to parse, but worthwhile to do so.

Lagarde, the first woman to head the IMF, appears the perfect post-Lean In model to address a women's college. Yet students, who somewhere seemed to have learned something about the IMF's history of shredding social welfare programs in the name of fiscal discipline, considered her in context, not just the facts of her resumé.

Johnston is known as an ambassador for test-driven education reform, a juggernaut movement that has only recently become widely recognized as one side in a political battle rather than a mom-and-apple-pie approach to helping poor kids, a bake sale with bubble tests. It's as likely that Harvard students weren't exposed to his ideas before graduation day as it is that they use vacuum tubes instead of email.

(I should note that Johnston, a college classmate, had to suffer through my own attempt at a commencement address, a review of our time together delivered with -- forgive me, Mike -- two fellow improv comedians.)

That three of these four withdrew in the face of criticism rather than face protests raises less the specter of chilling effects than the question of kitchens and heat. But granting the students the win, so what? They got involved in the fight of their day. They took an ivory-tower event and unpacked its real-world meaning.

Perhaps enduring Lagarde and Johnston's addresses would have broadened some minds. Standing against them has broadened far more. Today, more know that Johnston's reforms have critics, that Lagarde's institution is more than a worldwide Wells Fargo. More remember Rice's catastrophes, more worry that campuses resemble security states.

This is not a threat to, but a happy consequence of free speech. Free speech includes the right to point out what other people are saying.

If the reputations of the challenged speakers are in disrepair, that's a tribute to the seriousness with which their prospective audiences take them. What do you know, thwarted honoree? Choices have consequences.

This is still America. To get back on the commencement speech gravy-train, they need do little more than apologize for their missteps, get a new hobby, and give a half-decent TED talk about it. To those, people pay attention.