This past weekend, columnist George Will spoke at Michigan State University’s (MSU’s) December commencement ceremony, after university officials rebuffed students’ demands that he be disinvited. Will’s speech was not free from protesters, but thankfully it was free from disruption. The strategy employed by those objecting to Will’s presence stands in stark contrast to that of protesters at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) last week, who brought an event featuring Peter Thiel to a premature end.
As the Lansing State Journal explains, Will came under fire this summer for remarks he made about campus sexual assault, and many students subsequently objected to his being invited to speak at the university. The Journal reports that 18 MSU graduates—as well as many other attendees—stood with their backs to Will as he addressed the audience. About 250 people also protested his appearance along the sidewalks outside the ceremony’s venue. They did not, however, interrupt Will’s speech. 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.
Protesters at UC Berkeley should take a cue from the MSU grads. Video footage of the protest uploaded to YouTube shows a shouting crowd entering the auditorium where Thiel was speaking last Wednesday, taking over the stage and forcing Thiel away. Audience members were audibly upset at the end result, booing the protesters and shouting back. Those who silenced Thiel not only missed an opportunity for a real discussion with Thiel (and they likely would have found significant common ground), they also deprived their fellow students of that opportunity.
FIRE commends the students and audience members at MSU who demonstrated an understanding of the difference between exercising one’s right to freedom of expression and preventing someone else from exercising theirs. We wish we could do the same for their counterparts at Berkeley.