“But the answer to speech that offends us is, most often, our own speech,” University President Peter Salovey proudly proclaimed in his freshman address on Saturday. Fine — in this column, I will respond to a speech that offended me.
Last week, Salovey spoke at great length about a so-called crisis of free speech infecting our campuses. “In the last year or two,” Salovey told freshman, “we’ve seen more than the usual number of events on college and university campuses, across the country, in which the freedom to express ideas has been threatened. Invitations to provocative speakers have been withdrawn; politicians, celebrities, and even university presidents invited to deliver commencement addresses have — under pressure, declined to speak to graduates … In the most troubling of these ‘free speech’ incidents, speakers of various political persuasions have been shouted down and rendered unable to deliver remarks to campus groups who had invited them.”
He proceeded to quote extensively from a 1974 report by one of Yale’s intellectual giants, the late C. Vann Woodward. The report, issued in the wake of the protests of the 1960s, reaffirmed the University’s support for free speech, even when controversial.
Salovey was entertaining and thoughtful, as always. That said, when he decried students who protested controversial commencement speakers and shouted down certain lecturers as threatening free speech, he fundamentally missed the point.
Most of us are aware of the whole commencement-speakers controversy from a few months ago. After widespread protests at Rutgers, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that she would not speak at that university’s graduation. Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, decided not to speak at Smith College after hundreds signed an online petition condemning her. Robert Birgenau, former chancellor of Berkeley, backed out of his scheduled speech at Haverford’s graduation following similar protests.
And a few months before that, students at Brown shouted down former New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly of the notorious stop-and-frisk policy. This, I suspect, was one of the “speakers of various political persuasions” who was silenced, according to Salovey.
A vitally important distinction must be made between inviting a speaker to lecture on campus and honoring that speaker. Salovey failed to make it. When students protested the invitations to Rice, Lagarde, Birgenau and Kelly, they weren’t protesting these individuals’ right to speak; they were protesting the honor (or cash) that was being conferred on these individuals. Rutgers was slated to give Rice $35,000 and an honorary degree; Birgenau and Lagarde were set to receive honorary degrees. Kelly was invited to give Brown’s Noah Krieger ’93 Memorial Lecture, a huge honor — and, according to the university, an event designed to affirm Kelly’s “distinguished contributions to public service.”
The student protesters were not motivated by a desire to deny a voice to Rice, Lagarde, Birgenau and Kelly. The protesters were motivated by the fact that their universities were bestowing their highest honors on these individuals. “It wasn’t an unwillingness to listen to a contentious viewpoint that spurred student objections,” wrote Corinne Grinapol in The Nation, “it was the conferring of honorary degrees to those speakers, a tacit endorsement of their work and legacies.”
Neither this lecture nor the commencement addresses are debates. Only the invited speakers would be allowed to speak. So the only mechanism students had to respond to these speakers — as Salovey apparently wants — was to pre-emptively protest them.
It seems to me that C. Vann Woodward would have been proud of the student protesters, not of Salovey’s speech. One part of Woodward’s 1974 report stated that it is “entirely appropriate” for campus officials to “attempt to persuade a group not to invite a speaker.” If the group declines, the University should not impede the speech.
I assume Woodward would have extended this same logic to students attempting to persuade the University not to invite a speaker. And this is exactly what these students did. Students were not asked for their input when any of these individuals were initially invited. So they merely exercised their freedom of expression to protest these honorific invitations. And then Rice, Lagarde and Birgenau withdrew of their own volition. They were not forced out. Their speech was not impeded. They were simply unwilling to confront an opposing viewpoint.
Kelly was shouted down, but only after Brown refused to heed a petition and letter-writing campaign, urging the university to listen to the student voice and, at the very least, to cease to honor a racist to whom it was giving a podium. And because of that protest, Brown held a community forum the next night in which hundreds of students amicably debated the stop-and-frisk policy and Kelly’s speech.
President Salovey took a cheap shot at students who were merely attempting to be heard and to stop their universities from honoring dishonorable individuals. Especially considering Salovey’s excellent freshman address last year, we should all be very disappointed.
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His columns run on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.