Colleges Should Stand Up For Freedom of Speech!

  Christine Lagarde

Christine Lagarde

The list of scheduled commencement speakers who have been disinvited or encouraged to withdraw because of threatened student protests keeps growing. (If the speakers were just scared of facing a ruckus, so much the worse for them, but if college or university administrators encouraged them to withdraw, that is bad business on the part of those college and university administrators.) Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reported that Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund is now on this list: 

If colleges were standing up for freedom of speech, they would let the speakers come and use the fact of the student protests as a chance to teach everyone there about the importance of freedom of speech both for the invited speaker and for the protestors. When colleges treat having an outwardly pleasant commencement event as more important than upholding the principle that one should have a chance to hear the major viewpoints on an issue before making a judgment about it, they betray the quest for truth that is their reason for existence.

Now, it would be possible to give more dignity to hearing all sides of an issue. For example, a college could have a selection procedure to have the most eloquent student who wants to argue against the brief of the invited speaker have some time to talk after that speaker. Any invited speaker who is unwilling to come if he or she has to face a rebuttal afterward is no great loss. But I seriously doubt that someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali would be afraid of a debate–the Ayaan Hirsi Ali of whom Ruth Wisse wrote after Brandeis backtracked on giving her an honorary degree:

Here in the United States, the educated class thinks nothing of denying an honorary degree to a fearless Muslim woman who at peril of her life, and in the name of liberal democracy, has insisted on exposing…outrages [done in the name of Islam] to the light.

  Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I think I understand where college administrators are coming from. They are worried about what will happen to alumni donations if commencements are contentious rather than being pleasant ceremonies. But that path ultimately leads to freedom of speech at official podiums only when people don’t understand enough, or care enough about an idea to object, or when the idea happens to be congenial to those who come from the most aggressive tradition of protest.     

Update: Bonnie Kavoussi alerted me to this related post by Harvard Computer Science Professor Harry Lewis: “A bad day for the right to offend.”