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.