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A Commencement Speech Isn't Free Speech

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I've done hundreds of public talks of all kinds, including after-dinner speeches and keynote addresses for international conferences, and I've watched the whole uproar about commencement speakers being uninvited this past spring with disappointment.

Why? Because the discussion has been so consistently wrongheaded.

One thread that comes up over and over is that students protesting a speaker's invitation interfere with her free speech. That's just idiotic, and completely misunderstands the Bill of Rights. Condi Rice, for example, is free to speak about her beliefs, her past, her hopes and dreams, her view of foreign affairs, whatever she likes anywhere she wants to. She's a public figure and can appear on TV talk shows, can publish op-ed pieces, blogs, essays and books.

But the First Amendment says nothing about people who are invited to speak somewhere and paid to do so. It specifically refers to government intervention in individual expression. That simply did not happen in her case or in any other case where a speaker was controversial and campus protests arose.

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Just as foolish as invoking "free speech": the sententious moralizing about how students should be open to a fee expression of ideas. The Washington Post editorial board isn't alone in taking that tack, but are they for real? After four years of college, you don't want a lecture in the middle of a grueling, dull, long ceremony in the heat -- and you shouldn't get one.

Commencement speeches aren't seminars or workshops with Q&A. They're supposed to be inspiring and entertaining. Funny, if possible. They're throwaway, forgettable, a moment's ornament as Edith Wharton put it in another context. And that's okay, because graduation is about transitions, about moving on, about celebration. The ceremony itself isn't an intellectual milestone for anyone involved, it's not meant to go down in history, and the speaker is not Moses descended from the mountain top.

Academic freedom doesn't suffer, and nobody's rights are interfered with if they get invited at a very hefty fee to speak to a graduating class of students, and then get uninvited. Free exchange of ideas? The only exchange is the speech the speaker gives and the check 30% of commencement speakers get for their time.

Lev Raphael is the author of 24 books including 7 mysteries set in academia.