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Don’t turn commencement season into cancellation season

Plus: Free speech do’s and don’ts for campus administrators
Illustration of a college graduation on a page but part of the page is ripped out

Commencement season is here, and if the past is any indicator, we’re bound to see students rally to disinvite controversial speakers. That is, if administrators don’t do it first — preemptively scrubbing the graduation day schedule of anything that might elicit criticism. 

It’s a race to the bottom in a normal year. And this year has been anything but normal. 

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Campus Deplatforming Database


This research documents the ways and reasons that deplatforming attempts occur on college and university campuses from 1998 to the present.

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Fallout from the crisis in the Middle East has prompted a wave of protests at American colleges and universities not seen for decades — ones marked by deep ideological divides over the Israel-Hamas war. In recent weeks, large pro-Palestinian encampments have cropped up on campuses coast-to-coast, including at Columbia University, the University of Texas at AustinUCLA, and Emory University, leaving administrators unsure how to respond. Even institutions spared disruption, violence, or a large police presence have experienced major tensions — particularly schools where bad free speech policies and practices already make it difficult to broach tough topics. With little having been resolved come graduation time, it’s only natural that commencement controversies are barreling back in a big way.

Last week, Dickinson College disinvited radio and television host Michael Smerconish from delivering a commencement speech — and rescinded his honorary degree — after students and faculty objected to excerpts from a book the commentator wrote 20 years ago, in which he opined about airline screening practices. 

This came on the heels of the University of Southern California canceling its own valedictorian’s planned commencement address, citing unsubstantiated security threats, after her social media posts about Israel drew criticism online. “Implicit in the idea of a campus committed to robust expressive rights is that administrators won’t censor their students just because they have controversial views,” we wrote. Ten days later, USC went the extra mile and canceled its main commencement ceremony entirely, claiming it would not be able to implement adequate security measures for guests. 

On May 6, Columbia University also canceled its main commencement ceremony citing security concerns, acknowledging, “These past few weeks have been incredibly difficult for our community.”

As if this weren’t enough, there’s also the issue of protesters disrupting graduation ceremonies, perhaps seeing an opportunity to spread their message to a readymade audience. That’s what happened at the University of Michigan last weekend, when pro-Palestinian protesters carrying flags and posters marched down the aisle chanting, “Regents, regents, you can’t hide! You are funding genocide!” To the university’s credit, it escorted the demonstrators to the back of the stadium and continued the event.

How did we get here?

To understand where this is all headed, it helps to look back at where we’ve been. FIRE began tracking campus disinvitations in 2014, when the pressure to cancel speakers during college commencement season rose to unprecedented levels. During that watershed year, among other disinvitations, women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali was disinvited from speaking at Brandeis University. Students pressured the University of California, Berkeley to cancel the winter commencement speech by liberal comedian Bill Maher. And Pasadena City College disinvited and then re-invited Academy Award-winning writer Dustin Lance Black. 

The trend ebbed and flowed in the intervening years, but it never fully receded. Maybe that’s because when some colleges cave to disinvitation attempts, they provide cover for others to do the same. Today’s would-be-disruptors and deplatformers now have a veritable anthology of disinvitations to seek inspiration from, and unfortunately some schools are already supplying them with more material.

So how should college administrators navigate this tumultuous time without sidelining free speech principles? We shed light on that fundamental question with the following FAQs.

What should colleges do if controversy arises over a commencement speaker?

When a college invites a speaker to commencement, FIRE believes it should follow through except under the most extreme circumstances (for example, if a true threat or other verified, credible threat to the safety of the event arises). Notably, most commencement speeches are canceled for entirely inappropriate reasons (for example, because a student petition demands it). 

As FIRE Legal Director Will Creeley said back in 2015, “If we treat ideas we don’t agree with as barred from campus, then really what’s left are only the most inoffensive, and by extension most uninteresting, folks.” 

Smerconish echoed this message after being disinvited from Dickinson last weekend. “Achievement of the sort that warrants invitation to speak at such a ceremony does not come from a life lived quietly,” he said, lamenting the precedent set for future commencement speakers.

Commencement season presents an opportunity for colleges to reaffirm their commitment to the free exchange of ideas and help students broaden their understanding of the world. Colleges that invite a speaker to campus in the first place evidently believe — or at least at some point believed — that students can benefit from hearing that person’s views. When schools cave to a heckler’s veto, they selectively prioritize the wishes of those who dislike the speaker over those who do and deny all students the opportunity to listen.

Worse, they signal that their commitment to bringing interesting ideas to campus is just one cancellation campaign away from collapsing.

Can administrators cancel a commencement speech or speaker — or cancel commencement entirely — if they believe a protest or disruption will happen?

Because commencement speeches are not student-sponsored events, colleges and universities have the right to rescind a speaking invitation, but doing so sends a strong message that the administration favors — or disfavors — certain views.

In order to avoid accusations of viewpoint-based censorship, many colleges and universities have started citing “security concerns” as reason for canceling speakers, even if those concerns amount to nothing more than the “threat” of a student protest.

When USC canceled its valedictorian’s commencement speech, for example, it said it did so due to “security concerns.” But because the school failed to share the specific threats to safety, FIRE said this looked like calculated censorship. While universities like USC exercise discretion in choosing who delivers its valedictory address, canceling that speech based on criticism of their viewpoint implicates the broader campus speech climate in important ways. USC makes clear promises to respect viewpoint diversity and free expression — but its actions here signal to students and faculty that certain views are off-limits. 

Canceling a speech or a speaker should never be done solely to appease hecklers, and canceling due to safety concerns should be a last resort — undertaken only if the concerns are legitimate and the school has exhausted every option to mitigate them (such as increasing security). When faced with violent threats to expressive rights, the proper response is to preserve free speech by addressing those threats, not cancel the speech. A college contending with true threats to safety should be transparent about the specific threats and the nature of those threats to avoid the appearance that it’s using this claim as a pretext to shut down an expressive event.

What forms of protest are protected by the First Amendment at a college commencement ceremony?

In short, it depends on the nature of the protest. Booing and clapping are of course permitted, for example, as are silent protests and symbolic gestures. Sustained heckling that prevents the audience from hearing the speaker is not.

U. of Toledo Adopts Freedom of Expression Policy After Censoring Karl Rove Protesters

Press Release

Back in 2014, FIRE wrote about protests during a commencement speech by Wall Street Journal columnist George Will at Michigan State University. Although MSU students had called for Will to be disinvited, the protesters never disrupted his speech. Instead, a few dozen protesters and attendees stood with their backs to Will as he addressed the audience. Even more protested on the sidewalks outside the venue. Crucially, the event proceeded without interference.

As FIRE said at the time, “This is an excellent example of how students can add their viewpoints to campus discussions without interfering with the ability of others to speak and to listen.” 

FIRE also defended peaceful protesters at the University of Toledo, who in 2015 sought to enter an event featuring conservative commentator Karl Rove. The protesters planned to hold posters and distribute literature, and they said they would not disrupt the lecture, but campus police stopped them from entering anyway. Afterward, FIRE worked with UT to implement an “Expression on Campus” policy that protects students’ right to freedom of expression, aiming to prevent similar crackdowns on protest from happening again. 

In stark contrast, during venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s commencement address at the University of California, Berkeley that same year, protesters loudly entered the auditorium and took over the stage — forcing Thiel to end his remarks early. Video footage of the protest shows the audience visibly upset, booing the protesters and shouting back. 

Loud, disruptive protests like these are not protected under the First Amendment, and colleges have a responsibility to remove protesters who participate in them to ensure that commencement speakers are allowed to speak and the audience is able to listen.

Can administrators preemptively ban protests at college commencements?

It depends on what is meant by “ban.” 

At the University of Hartford in 2021, commencement attendees booed President Gregory Woodward off the stage after he announced the university would leave Division I athletics for Division III and stop awarding athletic scholarships. The next year, the school warned student athletes that “any disruption may result in disciplinary actions, including but not limited to their diplomas or transcripts being held.”

As FIRE explained at the time, it is well within the law for a university to remove protesters from an event or to punish students after a disruptive protest has occurred. However, Hartford critically failed to define what constitutes a “disruption.” Under its vague warning, even clapping or cheering at appropriate moments during a speech may have reasonably been interpreted as punishable conduct. We told Hartford that threatening students with punishment for expression before an event occurs “imperils the free speech rights the university promises.”

Schools can, on the other hand, generally encourage good behavior by educating their students on the differences between First Amendment-protected peaceful protest and disruptive conduct that prevents others from exercising their expressive rights. Colleges and universities should not tolerate the disruption of events. 

What can colleges do to ensure commencement goes smoothly?

College administrators understandably want to avoid controversy on graduation day. Commencement is a celebration, after all — a time for students, parents, administrators, and professors to come together and reflect on the year’s accomplishments. 

The truth is, when it comes to speech-related issues, controversy avoided today may be controversy inflamed tomorrow. 

But the truth is, when it comes to speech-related issues, controversy avoided today may be controversy inflamed tomorrow. 

Administrators who cave to censorial demands only embolden would-be censors to demand more cancellations. And administrators who quash protected speech only embolden people to take more dramatic action instead.

That’s why administrators committed to fostering healthy and productive dialogue on campus should forgo expedience and consider strategies that will lead to positive outcomes in the long term, like consistently upholding free speech principles. They can do this by setting clear ground rules for disruptive behavior and setting the clear expectation for students that the free exchange of ideas will be protected, even if some expression is disagreeable to any portion of the university community.

For extra credit, they can take inspiration from FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff’s recent address to the graduates of the University of South Florida Health Morsani College of Medicine, in which he warned against the dangers of certainty. 

“Certainty is the true mind-killer,” said Greg, revising a line from “Dune.” “When you are certain, you give yourself permission to turn off your mind.”

“So why shouldn’t you let certainty kill your mind?” he asked the crowd. “Because it’s a painfully dull, colorless, rigid way to live. The joy and awe of life come from looking up at a night sky and saying, ‘I could never begin to comprehend your vastness,’ rather than, ‘Whatever, I totally get all that.’”

The cure to certainty? 

“Listening to people,” he said, “particularly people very different from you.”

Commencement marks the end of students’ college experience, but it doesn’t have to mark the end of listening to, or learning from, those who are different from us. By simply letting speech happen at commencement, colleges can impart a lesson that will benefit students long after graduation.

College admins: Do you want help navigating commencement season in a free speech-friendly way? Don’t hesitate to contact FIRE.

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