In University of Michigan Commencement Speech, President Obama Praises Robust Debate

By May 3, 2010

On Saturday, President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address to the members of the University of Michigan’s Class of 2010, who assembled along with friends, family, and faculty to form a crowd of 80,000 in Michigan Stadium.

In his speech (full text here), President Obama hailed the vital importance of robust debate in our society. He warned that when citizens "choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own," social and political divisions in our nation only deepen, and he urged Americans to instead "actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs."

President Obama stated:

Still, if you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy. [Emphasis added.]

We at FIRE couldn’t agree more. (Of course, each of those outlets encompasses a diversity of views in itself, but the point is clear.)

As most Torch readers have surely noticed, censorship on campus is frequently the result of a misguided administrative desire to maintain conformity of thought on campus and a wrongheaded belief that certain views are presumably so noxious that they must not be aired in public, not even for purposes of fumigation. But what President Obama points out here—and perhaps this is his subtle response to the open letter we sent him upon his inauguration—is that it is only by exposure to those ideas we disagree with that we are able to test and refine our own thinking. That’s how a true marketplace of ideas functions—and it’s the intellectual engine of our society.

In recognizing the crucial link between exposure to the depth and breadth of human thought and the health of our democracy, President Obama echoes the Supreme Court’s own understanding of this connection as it applies on the American campus, as elucidated in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 250 (1957):

The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation … Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.

We have often included this eloquent formulation, penned for the Court’s majority by Chief Justice Earl Warren, in our letters to colleges and universities that have silenced one view in furtherance of another or that have punished students for holding the "wrong" belief. For as President Obama sagely noted in his speech on Saturday, robust debate is a prerequisite for a healthy democracy.

Schools: University of Michigan – Ann Arbor