Saturday, May 31, 2014

Bravo, Mayor (well, former mayor) Bloomberg--well done!

This whole idea of students protesting commencement speakers because they don't like the proposed speakers' politics bothers me, which is why I appreciated Mayor Bloomberg's commencement address so much.  I've experienced commencement speaker protests myself.  (Sarah Weddington was our commencement speaker during my first year of dean at the University of Houston Law Center, and I invited her because she was someone who was effective as a lawyer, in the Texas Legislature, and in the Carter Administration--and I consider her a friend.)

Law graduates who didn't appreciate her work as the lawyer in Roe v. Wade protested.  She had to worry about death threats at graduation.  (So did I.)  Even though she had recently been diagnosed with cancer, she came through and did a superb job at graduation.  The protesting students limited themselves to wearing gold lapel pins symbolizing baby feet, which was a perfectly legitimate and respectful form of protest.  I was proud of them.

Another commencement speaker at UHLC triggered a one-person protest by a student who believed that the speaker had insulted his family at a trial.  That particularlized protest, based on a personal interaction and not on a difference of philosophy, was different in kind.  We excused the student from commencement and gave him his diploma in a separate ceremony.

I know that there is a limit to the idea that students' protests shouldn't be taken into account when a university invites a controversial speaker--there are some speakers who are so reprehensible that giving them a public forum just seems wrong.  But for the life of me, I can't come up with the line-drawing that would make it clear when a speaker should be disinvited. Although I would likely know it when I saw it ("it" being the case for disinviting someone), my instincts aren't so superior that I would be comfortable using my own judgment as the appropriate benchmark.

Overall, though, universities can't be places where students learn to listen to others' viewpoints and learn to debate ideas respectfully, then where will they learn how to do that?

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