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[UPDATED] Speakers at commencement ceremonies across the country focus remarks on free speech

By June 6, 2017

Update (June 16, 2017): Professor Jon White gave a rousing defense of free speech during the convocation ceremony at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. The rest of White’s speech at CNU, which can be viewed here, centered on his experiences as a professor at the university and the challenges regarding freedom of speech:

“We live in a society in which people, especially people on college campuses, try to silence ideas with which they disagree. Shouting down or disinviting speakers they don’t like, claiming harm when they hear words or ideas they disdain. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google what’s happened in the last year or so at Emory, Oberlin, Yale, Mizzou, NYU, Middlebury, Claremont McKenna or Berkeley. In some of these instances students and faculty have shut down events that they had no interest in attending. Rather than simply not attend or better yet engaging with and arguing against ideas they find abhorrent, they instead chose to disrupt and suppress other people’s right of free expression. In the process they undermine the free exchange of ideas that is the core of a college education.

[…]

Unfortunately I think we have forgotten what the First Amendment is all about. Too many Americans today think they have a right not to have to hear ideas or words they don’t like. But such a notion makes a mockery of the First Amendment. The purpose of the First Amendment is not to protect popular speech. You don’t need a constitutional protection for ideas that the majority adheres to. You need it to protect unpopular ideas. The things that people might not want to hear.”


As FIRE continues to follow commencement addresses at colleges and universities across the nation (and associated controversies, including disinvitations of speakers), we’ve been pleased to note that several speakers have stressed the importance of freedom of expression on college campuses in their remarks. We agree that the university must serve as the “marketplace of ideas” where ideas compete for prominence, and we hope that these institutions take their invited guests’ words to heart — in policies and in practice.

May 13: University of California, Berkeley

Comedian and Berkeley alumnus Maz Jobrani encouraged the students of Berkeley to defend the free speech rights of those they disagree with in his address, referencing recent incidents where Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter were prevented from speaking at the university:

Now, since we’re in Berkeley, there’s another topic I would like to talk about today and that is free speech. As someone born in Iran where free speech is limited and people fight for it on a daily basis, even dying for it, I would urge you to not take that freedom for granted. Recently U.C. Berkeley has found itself in controversies around Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. To prepare for this part of my speech I went online and read some of their writings. Oh God! Talk about cruel and unusual punishment! They say a lot of stupid stuff Berkeley so I can’t blame you for not wanting them to talk here! However, as much as I’m appalled by their despicable words, as an American and as a comedian, I would encourage you to defend their rights to free speech. I know that’s not the most popular thing to say on campus, but we should have that discussion. I also believe that if we let them speak, their own words will ultimately hang them as was the case with Milo.

May 14: Hampden-Sydney College

Bret Stephens, a columnist for The New York Times, critiqued “safe spacesin his address to the college, admonishing students to listen to opposing points of view:

Thomas Jefferson said it best in his first Inaugural Address: “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

Let me repeat that, so that you may commit the words to memory: “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” When you can’t speak freely, sooner or later it becomes difficult to think clearly. God did not give you a mouth in order to keep it shut. And the Constitution does not include a Bill of Rights so that we may refrain from exercising our rights.

This should be a standard for every free society — and for every great college and university.

[…]

Members of the class of 2017: Do not close your ears to opposing points of view. Otherwise you cannot learn. Do not foreclose the possibility that you might change your mind. Otherwise you cannot grow. Do not lose sight of the fact that you are not in possession of the whole and only truth. Otherwise you will fail to notice your mistakes, and so suffer their consequences.

May 20: George Mason University

Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post and previously of The Boston Globe’s famed “Spotlight” team, explained in his address that silencing speech threatens our democracy:

Another principle of George Mason is naturally close to my heart: freedom of the press. His Virginia Declaration of Rights called it “one of the great bulwarks of liberty.”

This gave rise to the First Amendment, which allowed not just freedom of the press but freedom of expression of every variety — and for everyone. Today, it permits free expression in music, movies, advertising, social media. In the everyday conversations with friends, family, and colleagues.

[…]

Ours is a country that makes a moral demand on every citizen — all of you — to speak up. When people talk of self-governance in this country, that is what they’re talking about.

Self-governance does not end at the ballot box. It is an obligation that persists every day.

Speaking up is no threat. Suppression of speech is the threat. Silence is the threat.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1927 that “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty.”

May 21: Bucknell University

Journalist Fareed Zakaria invoked philosopher John Stuart Mill in his defense of free speech and debate on campus:

And that is sometimes what I feel when I walk around college campuses, that you all believe things passionately but as dead dogmas, not as living truths, because you don’t argue about them enough. You don’t confront people who argue against you. You turn your back to them. And I don’t want you to turn your back to people; I want you to turn your face, your mind. Debate with them. Argue with them. Explain to them why you think you’re right, why you’re wrong. And guess what? You will discover in that that no matter who you’re talking to, there’s something you learn from that exchange. That there’s some way in which they are addressing a concern that is real. There is some argument that they have that you might have overlooked.

That’s why Mill said if opponents of all-important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments, which the most skillful devil’s advocate could conjure up. You don’t need to imagine these people; just invite them to your campuses. Just allow them to speak, and then argue with them. And in that contestation of ideas we have always held, somehow a greater truth emerges.

May 21: University of Maryland

Shuping Yang, a Chinese student graduating from the University of Maryland, discussed differences between Chinese and American environments for free speech in her address to her class, and she celebrated her ability to discuss controversial topics and authority figures during her time at the University of Maryland:

At the University of Maryland, I would soon feel another kind of fresh air for which I will be forever grateful. The fresh air of free speech.

[…]

Each day at Maryland, I was encouraged to express my opinions on controversial issues. I could challenge a statement made by my instructor. I could even rate my professors online!

[…]

The opportunity to immerse myself in the diverse community at the University of Maryland exposed me to various, many different perspectives on truth. I soon realized that here, I have the opportunity to speak freely. My voice matters. Your voice matters. Our voices matter. Civil engagement is not a task just for politicians.

May 21: University of Notre Dame

Vice President Mike Pence encouraged students to support free speech on campuses and critiqued suppressive speech codes in his address:

While this institution has maintained an atmosphere of civility and open debate, far too many campuses across America have become characterized by speech codes, safe zones, tone-policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness, all of which amounts to nothing less than suppression of the freedom of speech.

These all-too-common practices are destructive of learning and the pursuit of knowledge, and they are wholly outside the American tradition. As you, our youth, are the future, and universities the bellwether of thought and culture, I would submit that the increasing intolerance and suppression of the time-honored tradition of free expression on our campuses jeopardizes the liberties of every American. This should not, and must not be met with silence.

May 25: Harvard University

Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust called on students to support unfettered debate, even when doing so is not easy:

Our values and our theory of education rest on the assumption that members of our community will take the risk of speaking and will actively compete in our wild rumpus of argument and ideas. It requires them as well to be fearless in face of argument or challenge or even verbal insult. And it expects that fearlessness even when the challenge is directed to the very identity — race, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality — that may have made them uncertain about their right to be here in the first place. Demonstrating such fearlessness is hard; no one should be mocked as a snowflake for finding it so.

Hard, but important and attainable. Attainable, we believe, for every member of our community. But the price of free speech cannot be charged just to those most likely to become its target. We must support and empower the voices of all the members of our community and nurture the courage and humility that our commitment to unfettered debate demands from all of us. And that courage means not only resilience in face of challenge or attack, but strength to speak out against injustices directed at others as well.

May 26: Wellesley College

Hillary Clinton, pointing out that she was the president of the Wellesley College Young Republicans while a student there, encouraged students to learn from open debate with those they may disagree with:

At their best, our colleges and universities are free marketplaces of ideas. Embracing a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds. That’s our country at our best, too. An open, inclusive, diverse society is the opposite of an anecdote to a closed society where there is only one right way to think, believe, and act.

Here at Wellesley you’ve worked hard to turn this ideal into a reality. You’ve spoken out against racism and sexism and discrimination of all kinds and you’ve shared your own stories and at times that’s taken courage. But the only way our society will ever become a place where everyone truly belongs is if all of us speak openly and honestly about who we are, what we’re going through. So keep doing that. And let me add that your learning, listening and serving should include people who don’t agree with you politically.

That so many speakers — of diverse views and backgrounds — focused their remarks to graduates on free speech and the exchange of ideas demonstrates what an integral element free expression is to both the college experience and to society as a whole. We hope that university administrators and students alike will heed their advice and embrace open debate and counter-speech over calls for censorship and disinvitation in the future.