Steve Chapman
"Oh, that my enemy would write a book," goes the old wish, coined by someone who knew there is no better way to expose fools than through their own words. It's an idea that deserves consideration from the college students and faculty unhappy with their schools' choice in commencement speakers.

The usual response to such invitations is to demand that they be revoked. This year, critics cowed Brandeis into yanking its offer to anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Outrage at Rutgers prompted former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to withdraw, and when howls when up at Smith, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde suddenly found better things to do.

Former University of California, Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau pulled out at Haverford over criticism of his university police's use of batons and pepper spray on Occupy Wall Street demonstrators. Data from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education show that incidents like these have gotten far more common over the past decade.

It's understandable that students might prefer not to share their big day with someone who has said or done things that they find grossly objectionable. But forcing them out or driving them away is the wrong response for all sorts of reasons.

One is that hecklers shouldn't have a veto in what is supposed to be a place of free inquiry. When Skidmore College issued an invitation to a former mining company executive, a student who opposed it told a faculty meeting, "It's my commencement. Not hers. Or yours." Actually, it belongs to Skidmore, not the student, who is merely a temporary member of the college community. If you detest whom your school invited, maybe you chose the wrong school.

Disinviting also carries the stain of censorship, implying that college graduates should not have to endure views that contradict their own. But what's the point of education if it doesn't confer the thinking skills to evaluate and reject wrong views?

Blocking a speaker deprives the critics of the chance to respond in a persuasive and forceful way. When Rice is induced to stay away from Rutgers, the topic of conversation is whether her critics had a right to demand her absence. Had she shown up, they could have focused attention on a far more important issue: her culpability in the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

Likewise with Birgeneau and Lagarde. You think they are bad actors? In their absence, most of the people attending those commencements will remain ignorant of their records.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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