Commencement speaker cancellations and academic freedom (and the University of Chicago solution)

May 16, 2014

Tyler Cowen has a post noting the ever-increasing number of canceled commencement speeches, and wryly suggesting that the cancellations are inconsistent with “Academia as a bastion of free speech.”

I don’t quite know how to think about the academic speech issues here. (At private universities these are of course not constitutional questions but questions about the free-speech norms that govern, or that I wish governed, most American universities.)

On one hand, I don’t think speeches at universities should be cancelled on the basis of their viewpoint. On the other hand, many of these cancellations have been quasi-voluntary responses to opposition at the school (or so it seems). And further, it’s hard to have a principle of neutrality with respect to a commencement speech, since the speech is picked by the university for a special place of honor.

Of course, this is one of the reasons that I generally worry about the university trying to single out speech it particularly agrees with. As the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report (that’s free speech scholar Harry Kalven) put it: “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. … There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives.”

The University of Chicago’s solution to the commencement-speaker problem has been a tradition for several decades of having the official commencement speaker be a sitting faculty member. Of course that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of controversy, but as a practical matter it does strongly reduce the power of opposing groups to “disinvite” that person.

Will Baude is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and federal courts. His recent articles include Rethinking the Federal Eminent Domain Power, (Yale Law Journal, 2013), and Beyond DOMA: State Choice of Law in Federal Statutes, (Stanford Law Review, 2012).
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