Protesting Commencement Speakers

The critiques leveled against students objecting to their institution’s chosen commencement speakers are often dishonest. They appeal, vaguely, to academic freedom and the ideal of a free exchange of ideas. But neither of these ideals is endangered when students object to an administration’s choice of graduation speaker.

A commencement speech is not, usually, part of a process of intellectual inquiry; not being allowed to speak to a graduating class is not going to stifle anybody’s research. It also is not an opportunity for an exchange of opinions—unless some college somewhere allows for a rebuttal or a time for questions following the speech. Rather, these speeches are honors—especially when the speaker is also given an honorary degree.

Graduating students have a right to question and to make demands about who is honored in their name. Indeed, as engaged, educated citizens, they have a responsibility to do so. If their approach to this right is in fact “arrogant” and “immature,” then the college that has allowed them to earn their degrees has bigger problems than a speaker withdrawing.

But those problems would be even worse if the students simply did not speak, or if they waited until their words would not make waves. The engaged citizens I try to help my students become know the difference between civility and compliance.

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