Commencement speaker protests stir a debate over free speech on campuses


Dr. Benjamin Carson, director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, this week reconsidered his invitation from Johns Hopkins after a furor over his remarks lumping together homosexuality, pedophilia and bestiality. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)
April 11, 2013

College campuses are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas. But some ideas, and some people, are less welcome than others these days. Just ask Robert Zoellick and Ben Carson.

Zoellick, the former World Bank president, and Carson, the world-renowned Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, have withdrawn as college commencement speakers in the past week following protests from students and professors. Zoellick accepted and then turned down an invitation from Swarthmore College — his alma mater — after students objected to his support of the Iraq war and his record at the World Bank; Carson this week reconsidered his invitation from Johns Hopkins after a furor over his remarks lumping together homosexuality, pedophilia and bestiality.

Commencement speaker controversies have become so common that they’re practically a springtime ritual, like the opening of the baseball season or the blossoming of daffodils. Figures as diverse as President Obama and actor James Franco, whom some UCLA students knocked as lacking gravitas, have all been the object of graduation brouhahas in recent years.

“Overall, there seems to be an increased sensitivity to things that in the past we might have let it roll off our backs,” says Josh Wheeler, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, a First Amendment legal policy group at the University of Virginia. “Nowadays, people aren’t afraid to express their objections, which isn’t a bad thing, but people are more willing to censor [speech] to remove the offending speech or language.”

Wheeler refers to this phenomenon as “ the heckler’s veto,” the ability of a small but vocal group to limit the choices of a much larger majority.

“We shouldn’t ignore [protest] but at the same time to allow a minority to determine what we see or hear is very concerning from a free-speech point of view,” Wheeler said. “Too often, it’s easier to eliminate the problem than deal with the controversy.”

Such issues have risen and fallen on college campuses for decades, leading to familiar complaints that the nation’s institutions of higher learning are dens of “political correctness.” The charge is often leveled by conservatives against what they perceive as the liberal orthodoxy of college campuses.

In fact, conservative writer Ann Coulter was forced to cancel an appearance at the University of Ottawa in Canada in 2010 after about 2,000 students crowded the entrance to the hall at which she was scheduled to speak and protested her views. Former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin faced protests from students and controversy over her fees when she was invited to speak at California State University-Stanislaus in 2010, but she went ahead with her appearance.

The recent furors over Carson and Zoellick fit this pattern, too. Carson, a self-described Christian conservative, apologized for remarks he made in a Fox News interview in March in which he said “no group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality” had the right to change the traditional definition of marriage.

Students at Hopkins protested his remarks and took up a petition for a new speaker. Despite another apology, Carson decided to withdraw on Wednesday. “My presence is likely to distract from the true celebratory nature of the day,” Carson wrote in an e-mail to the dean of the university’s medical school, Paul Rothman. “Commencement is about the students and their successes, and it is not about me,”

Zoellick, a former George W. Bush administration official, was to have received an honorary degree at Swarthmore, but he also pulled out this week after students mounted a campaign on Facebook calling him an “architect of the Iraq war” and a “war criminal” for his support of the 2003 invasion. Although Zoellick did support the war, he did not plan it; he was Bush’s U.S. trade representative and later worked to resolve the conflict in Darfur as a State Department official. He ran the World Bank from 2007 until last year.

As the attacks on Zoellick mounted last month, Swarthmore’s student newspaper, the Daily Gazette, exercised its own free speech by mocking the controversy. In an April Fool’s Day edition, it wrote that the school “would not be offering degrees to any member of the Class of 2013 who does not intend to found a vegan coffee shop after graduation, calling other professional choices ‘antithetical to Swarthmore values.’ ”

But figures on the left have received similar treatment as well. Weeks of protest by anti-abortion advocates, for example, preceded President Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame University in 2010. Also that year, the University of Wyoming canceled a speech by former 1960s radical William Ayers after hundreds objected.

Meanwhile, protests flared this week at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law in New York after it gave its “International Advocate for Peace Award” to former president Jimmy Carter on Wednesday. A group of Cardozo alumni set up a Web site calling on the school’s graduates to withdraw their financial support to protest Carter’s criticism of Israel.

At the least, the current climate of protest strikes former university president Robert O’Neil as reasonably civilized. When O’Neil headed the University of Wisconsin in the early 1980s, a student group invited former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver to speak. His first appearance was canceled because of security concerns; a second appearance led to violence between rival student groups and eight arrests for disorderly conduct. Cleaver cut his speech short.

“What people see as evidence of political correctness [today] is not what’s going on,” says O’Neil, who also ran Indiana University and the University of Virginia during his academic career. “The harshest thing I see is that we engage more in self-censorship, but that’s a long way from succumbing to political correctness. It’s not P.C. to make a special effort to respect people’s beliefs and to try to accommodate them.”

Rather than viewing the campus climate as evidence of growing censorship, O’Neil sees it as more hospitable to open debate. “The discourse is more orderly,” he says. “There’s more willingness to reason. People don’t always agree, and they can disagree aggressively, but that’s how the marketplace of ideas works.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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