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‘Disinvitation Season’ 2016 Begins: Cue the Commencement Controversies

POLITICO gave a rundown earlier this week of the colleges and universities ringing in convocation season in crisis-management mode after students and faculty members protested the selected speakers and honorees. Unsurprisingly, there are many.

Among the notable examples are the University of Notre Dame for asking both former Speaker of the House John Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden to speak, the University of Alabama at Huntsville for inviting Senator Jeff Sessions, and Scripps College for its choice of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Of course, these controversies are not unique: “disinvitation season,” as we call it here at FIRE, comes around this time every year, when students and faculty members begin demanding a commencement speaker or honoree be disinvited. Nevertheless, the cases mentioned above provide a glimmer of hope. It seems students and faculty members may have learned that using free speech to criticize selected speakers is superior to attempting to get the university to revoke the speakers’ platform to speak.

Notre Dame was ostensibly trying to play it safe by inviting both a Republican and Democrat. Some students, though, have said they are opposed to Boehner because of his stances on immigration, the environment, and capital punishment; others, meanwhile, object to Biden because of his support for same-sex marriage and abortion. Obviously, students at Notre Dame disagree on any number of issues as much as Boehner and Biden do. Political consensus is a fiction. This, however, is precisely why disinvitation is, more often than not, an inappropriate response.

Students and faculty members at the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH), on the other hand, have expressed disappointment with the selection of Sessions. According to their petition, which reads more like an open letter, they oppose Sessions because of his voting record and because they don’t want to give him a platform during an election year.

Likewise, at Scripps College, faculty members have indicated that they will not participate in this year’s commencement because they disagree with Albright’s tenure as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of state. While faculty members have not called for an outright disinvitation, they state that “the process of selection [for a speaker] should be reconsidered to better reflect Scripps [sic] values and commitments.” Scripps must not heed this call; if it does, it will find itself making judgment calls that, like Notre Dame now knows, places it in a lose-lose situation.

To be clear, FIRE does not object to students and faculty members criticizing or disagreeing with a school’s choice of commencement speaker. After all, that’s free speech and it adds to the campus dialogue. The problem arises when those criticisms and protests turn to calls for disinvitation. Disinviting a speaker does not add to the dialogue; it detracts from it by depriving others in the campus community of the opportunity to listen to and possibly learn from that speaker.

So far, it’s reassuring to see students and faculty members use their voices to criticize commencement speakers rather than call for disinvitations. But, since history is often prologue, FIRE remains hesitant to say disinvitation season is over.

For more about campus disinvitations, or to see how your school has fared over the years, check out FIRE’s comprehensive Disinvitation Database.

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