The lesson California State University Sacramento graduates learned from their commencement festivities last weekend was, to paraphrase an old saying: Don't heckle people who buy ink by the barrel.
Especially if the speaker is Sacramento Bee Publisher Janis Besler Heaphy. Last weekend, Heaphy was the university's commencement speaker. Her talk focused on the need to cling to civil liberties despite the terrorist threat. She urged the crowd to feel free to protest the government when it was wrong.
The audience, to her chagrin, had no need of convincing when it came to the value of protest. Some audience members started shouting things at Heaphy.
She ended her talk five minutes into an eight-minute speech. The Bee ran a story about the incident, the opinion pages ran the text of the speech, and Bee Columnist Daniel Weintraub wrote a column scolding the hecklers. Let me make it clear that I consider heckling to be rude behavior. As a recipient of said behavior, I prefer debate to drowning out other voices. But the irony of the Heaphy incident deserves comment.
Start with the fact that Heaphy told the students: "We need your perspective. We need your energy. We need your thinking." But when people confronted her with their thinking, she did not thank them for expressing their viewpoint. She did not engage them. She clammed up.
According to the text of the speech printed in the Bee, Heaphy also would have told the students it was their "duty" to question the government. (But she got huffy when the audience questioned her.) And, "Once you've developed your opinions, have the courage to express them."
Many parents were angry that Heaphy used a commencement speech as a forum to protest Bush administration policies. "Although we had gone to the Arco Arena to celebrate our daughter Michelle's graduating cum laude and the diligence with which she worked to pursue her goals, we were subjected to a woman on a political mission instead," Tura Avner of Petaluma, Calif., explained. It especially irked Avner that Heaphy hijacked her daughter's graduation ceremony, when Heaphy already has a forum -- a newspaper, no less -- in which to present her opinions.
The publisher is not talking to the press on the speech. Hmmmm. I asked CSU Sacramento spokesperson Ann Reed why Heaphy didn't continue talking or engage the audience. Reed answered: "She probably could have continued, but there was noise. That was her choice."
It was also Heaphy's choice to make the insulting remark that America's "initial reaction (to the Sept. 11 attacks) was for revenge." She attacked the administration next for asking newspapers not to print President Bush's itinerary during a visit to Sacramento and asking TV networks to "censor portions of the videos produced by Osama bin Laden."
"Even here," Bee columnist Weintraub wrote, "she did not say outright that any of these policies were wrong. She was mildly critical, her real purpose was to raise questions."
According to sources, the question that most riled the audience was this: "If bin Laden's words are suppressed, should we then censor the words of anyone who might oppose the administration or disagrees with a United States policy?"
Of course, the answer is no. But since nobody is talking about censoring criticism of the administration, her question was downright inane. And it's annoying when someone urges other people to feel free to criticize the government, then hides behind the pose of, as Weintraub wrote, just raising questions.
CSU Sacramento President Don Gerth was appalled. He has argued that most students did not engage in the heckling, that the audience was more at fault. In a statement, he noted that graduates had a "right" to hear what Heaphy had to say.
He has a point. It would have been best if the critics simply voiced their opinion by walking out. But as Avner noted, when audiences criticize publishers, they're hecklers. When they drown out conservatives, they're "protesters."