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Commencement Invitation Drama Continues; Free Speech Advocates Speak Out

By May 9, 2014

This spring, FIRE has already brought you the news of women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali being disinvited from speaking at Brandeis University, Condoleezza Rice canceling her commencement speech at Rutgers University after some students objected to her invitation, and Pasadena City College disinviting and then re-inviting Academy Award-winning writer Dustin Lance Black. It’s been a pretty active “disinvitation season” so far, and free speech advocates are speaking up about why this trend is so worrying.

Some updates first: Since our last blog entry on the topic, Black has accepted his re-invitation, urging the Pasadena City College community to move on and “put the focus where it should be—on the students.” Rutgers has replaced Rice with former New Jersey governor and former Drew University president Thomas H. Kean—but not before another major flub. Eric LeGrand, a former Rutgers football player who was paralyzed during a 2010 game, had already accepted an invitation to speak at commencement when he was notified by Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann that Kean would be the keynote speaker. Reportedly, according to a voicemail, “President Barchi decided to go in another direction for political reasons.” But a statement released by the university on Tuesday suggested that there was simply a miscommunication, and that administrators always intended LeGrand to speak, just not as the “only speaker.” At this point, who knows?

Meanwhile, Texas Tech University wrote to Rice to make clear that she was welcome to speak at future commencement ceremonies on its campus, citing her accomplishments and Tech’s commitment to free speech. Chancellor Kent Hance remarked on the Rutgers critics who inspired Rice’s decision: “I just worry in this country when there’s certain groups, and they’re for free speech, but only for the people who agree with them.” Hance said that “Texas Tech is a university of ideas, and our commencement ceremonies have featured speakers from various political parties and with a wide range of professional backgrounds from all over the world.” FIRE is happy to see a university leader like Hance speak up for a thriving marketplace of ideas on campus, and we would love to work with Texas Tech to help bring its written policies on student speech in line with this commendable attitude.

In other news, with just over a week until commencement, a group of Haverford College students are protesting the school’s decision to invite former University of California, Berkeley chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau to speak and receive an honorary degree. Objectors cited the controversy over university police using force on protesting students in 2011, when Birgeneau was chancellor, and asked him to meet nine conditions—including an apology for his role in the 2011 events. Birgeneau refused to acquiesce to the demands, and Haverford President Daniel H. Weiss reaffirmed his wish to honor Birgeneau as “one of the most influential and important higher education leaders in our generation.” FIRE is glad to see that Haverford (so far, at least) has not allowed itself to be coerced into disinviting Birgeneau, and that Birgeneau is similarly committed to speak at the college.

Several media outlets have provided commentary on “disinvitation season” and other limitations on open discourse on campus. FIRE President Greg Lukianoff made an appearance on Fox News’s Special Report this week in a program that examines the dangers posed by prioritizing political correctness over freedom of expression, particularly when it comes to inviting and disinviting commencement speakers. That report included a panel discussion of the issue as well. In a Wall Street Journal video, Claremont Review of Books Editor Charles Kesler spoke about how the desire to avoid hurt feelings by mandating “tolerance” can chill speech and result in censorship.

Finally, we recommend reading an editorial published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal today that argues that a small group of critics shouldn’t have the power to effectively exclude a speaker from campus. The editorial board writes that too often on campus, “[i]nstead of hearing out those with different perspectives and engaging in a vigorous exchanges of ideas, debate is cut off, speech is silenced and ideas are censored.”

FIRE, of course, shares this concern. We’ll continue to report on developments as disinvitation season progresses.

Schools: Brandeis University Texas Tech University Haverford College Rutgers University – New Brunswick Cases: Nationwide: Colleges Across the Country Disinvite Commencement Speakers