On Saturday, President Obama spoke to Howard University’s graduating class of 2016. Over the years, the historic institution, which was established by the Freedmen’s Bureau after President Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, has provided a platform for an array of voices, including artists, doctors, and civil rights activists. It’s therefore only natural that President Obama would choose to reflect on free speech during his commencement address there.
After reflecting on improvements in race relations since his own college days, the president offered the class of 2016 advice.
“Change requires more than just speaking out. It requires listening, as well,” President Obama said. “In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.”
“Don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down,” he said, “no matter how much you disagree with them.”
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 7, 2016
The president cited what he called “a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally,” referencing the kinds of disinvitations FIRE meticulously tracks. “Don’t do that—no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.”
As Torch readers know, FIRE agrees wholeheartedly with the sentiments the president has expressed on this issue—shutting down debate and stripping a speaker of his or her platform will not achieve the desired change, let alone justice. In fact, it runs counter to such goals.
Of course, this raises the question: What should college students do instead about those with whom they disagree? The president had a simple solution.
“Let them talk. Let them talk,” he said. “If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability.”
President Obama, quoting his grandmother, said that “every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance.” Importantly, the president advised students to “[h]ave the confidence to challenge them, the confidence in the rightness of your position.” He acknowledged that “[t]here will be times when you shouldn’t compromise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. But listen. Engage.”
The president also explained why it’s troubling that most college students support free speech in theory, but also support restrictions in practice:
If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas. And you might as well start practicing now, because one thing I can guarantee you—you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life. That may not seem fair, but life has never been completely fair. Nobody promised you a crystal stair. And if you want to make life fair, then you’ve got to start with the world as it is.
“You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you,” he said. “When this happens,” he added, “you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want.”
Howard University, like society at large, is “big and it is boisterous and it is more diverse than ever,” noted the president. Consequently, no two people see everything the same way, which is why, President Obama explained, “our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle disputes with arguments and ideas and votes instead of violence and simple majority rule.” Free speech, then, is about much more than just protecting offensive speech—it’s about protecting the chance of progress and the tools for improving society. Each generation, like those dating back to Howard’s founding, need to use free speech to continually push for progress so that, as in President Obama’s experience, society is better at each subsequent generation’s college graduation.