Freedom of speech for Condoleezza Rice!

March 20, 2014

by Dick Polman at NewsWorks

Ah yes, the traditions of early spring: budding trees, budding ballplayers, and budding campus brouhahas. Especially the latter. Just check out the current flap at Rutgers University, where some liberal litmus-test professors are demanding that the school cancel its commencement invitation to Condoleeza Rice.Welcome to “disinvitation season,” the time of year when colleges and universities – alleged bastions of open-ended intellectual inquiry – all too often flirt with censorship. The Rice story is just the latest example of this sorry phenomenon.Her critics on the Rutgers-Newark campus deem her unsuitable to deliver the commencement address because she helped sell the Iraq war while serving as George W. Bush’s national security adviser. Heaven forbid that the graduating students and their families might hear something disagreeable (assuming that Rice even references Iraq or Bush). Heaven forbid that they might be exposed to an opposing view, something that challenges them to think anew.

The liberal PC line was best articulated (if that’s the right word) last Friday by English and American studies professor H. Bruce Franklin: “This is not good for Rutgers. What we’re doing is awarding an honorary degree and having a commencement speech from someone who is a war criminal.”

Here’s some advice for the prof: Unless Rice gets convicted by an international tribunal, that “war criminal” talk is only fit for graffiti on a bathroom wall.

It’s undoubtedly true that Rice helped hype the march to war, warning us about Saddam Hussein’s (non-existent) WMDS; most infamously, she declared on CNN that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” But Rice’s track record is far more nuanced than that; she is more than the sum of her worst moments. “War criminal” is a tag that’s designed to shut down discussion – whereas the core mission of a university is to stimulate discussion.

As secretary of state in Bush’s second term, Rice pushed for a more diplomatic, less divisive foreign policy – and, as a result, she clashed repeatedly with Bush hardliners like Dick Cheney. She played a key role in forging a landmark nuclear accord with India, and she came close to bringing Israelis and Palestinians together on a peace initiative. At the same time, she was wary of Vladimir Putin. She said in 2007 that he was too autocratic: “In any country, if you don’t have countervailing institutions, the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development.  I think there is too much concentration of power in the Kremlin. I have told the Russians that.”

You’d think that Rutgers faculty members would be curious to hear what Rice has to say about Putin now. Maybe they’ll still dislike her – but so what? This is called freedom of speech.

Rice will probably weather the storm and speak as scheduled. But it’s a shame that “disinvitation season” – a phrase coined by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) – has become such a tradition. For instance, back in 2008, faculty at the University of Georgia tried in vain to disinvite commencement speaker Clarence Thomas; the school was enmeshed in a sexual harassment case, and Thomas had been accused of sexual harassment in 1991…hence, a problem of “timing.”

One year ago, in the Philadelphia suburbs, some students at Swarthmore College made a stink about Robert Zoellick, a former president of the World Bank and U.S. trade representative. He was supposed to deliver the commencement speech, but he got the “war criminal” treatment – courtesy of a vigorous campaign on Facebook – because he had earlier supported (but had no role in prosecuting) the war in Iraq.

Zoellick, a Swarthmore grad, ultimately gave up the gig (“I don’t want to disrupt what should be a special day”). Which was too bad, because he had a lot of support. Students on the college paper mocked the PC purity ethos by satirically writing that Swarthmore “would not be offering degrees to any member of the Class of 2013 who does not intend to found a vegan coffee shop after graduation, calling other professional choices ‘antithetical to Swarthmore’s values.'”

But disinvitation season is not limited to schools with left-leaning reputations. There were protests at Notre Dame in 2009, when President Obama – a supporter of abortion rights and health-coverage contraception – was invited to deliver the commencement speech. In other words, even though colleges and universitives routinely swear fealty to the open marketplace of ideas, it’s increasingly difficult to find any speaker (especially from the political realm) who doesn’t tick off some campus faction.

Much the way we customize our iPods to play only the tunes we like, too many academics seem determined to tune out what they deem unacceptable. How sad that is. As Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, wrote the other day, “freedom of speech and academic freedom depend on our ability to handle hearing opinions we dislike, and constructively and creatively engaging those opinions…we’re coming to regard the intellectually healthy practice of hearing views with which we disagree not merely as an inconvenience, but as a violation of some kind of right not to be challenged.”

Indeed, Lukianoff fears that “our society is increasingly able to segregate itself according to the news and information we receive.” His fear is well founded. Because this is not just about academia.

Cases: Nationwide: Colleges Across the Country Disinvite Commencement Speakers