It’s embarrassing to see the New York Times join the “How dare anyone object to a controversial commencement speaker!” club:
Commencement speakers made news this year mostly by their absence. Protesters on the left assailed speakers who had been invited by colleges and universities, and in some cases, they got their wish, driving away the intended guests.
Brandeis University rescinded its invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist. Others withdrew in the face protests: Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, from Rutgers University; Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, from Smith College; and Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, from Haverford College.
This topic of scuttled speakers was on the minds of many of those who did speak, including some who addressed colleges where the protests succeeded. Some approached the issue humorously and others seriously, some obliquely and others head-on.
Mostly, they expressed disapproval, warning against political orthodoxy, and insisting that the principle of airing opposing views should have trumped whatever objections there were to the speakers.
Universities and their students have a right to tell potentially controversial commencement speakers to get lost. There’s nothing objectionable to this at all. Frankly, some views are so intolerable that they warrant this sort of shame and scorn. Would you want someone who, for example, opposed all age-of-consent laws speaking at your child’s commencement exercises?
The Times notes former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s defense of commencement speakers with controversial views in his May 29 Harvard University commencement address:
Intolerance of ideas, whether liberal or conservative, is antithetical to individual rights and free societies, and it is no less antithetical to great universities and first-rate scholarship. There is an idea floating around college campuses, including here at Harvard, that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism. Think about the irony: In the 1950s, the right wing was attempting to repress left-wing ideas. Today, on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species. And perhaps nowhere is that more true than here in the Ivy League. …
Requiring scholars — and commencement speakers, for that matter — to conform to certain political standards undermines the whole purpose of a university.
By that logic, Bloomberg, who spoke often about the risk of climate change during his tenure as mayor of New York, shouldn’t have any problem with universities embracing climate-change deniers as commencement speakers, right?
If universities and their students would rather not have a denier, or a war criminal, or someone who thinks income inequality is no big deal as a commencement speaker, there is nothing immoral or intolerant about telling that speaker to go. The “tolerance” argument is BS; does “tolerance” mean that we should embrace commencement speakers who think the Holocaust is a hoax, or that blacks are genetically inferior to whites?
Commencement exercises should be about honoring the students who worked to achieve their degrees and the parents who made sacrifices on behalf of those students, not honoring those known for repugnant rhetoric and abhorrent actions. It’s reasonable for a school to say things just won’t work, and to tell a offensive commencement speaker, “Hit the road, jerk.”