Inside the Minds of Students Who Protest Commencement Speeches

Who’s violating whose free speech?

COLLEGE PARK, MD - MAY 17: Graduates of Bowie State University put messages on their mortarboard hats during the school's graduation ceremony at the Comcast Center on the campus of the University of Maryland May 17, 2013 in College Park, Maryland. First lady Michelle Obama delivered the commencement speech for the 600 graduates of Maryland's oldest historically black university and one of the ten oldest in the country. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Lucia Graves
May 20, 2014, 8:14 a.m.

Of­ten missed in the de­bate over the rash of col­lege stu­dents protest­ing their com­mence­ment speak­ers is the views of the stu­dents them­selves.

There has been plenty of con­des­cen­sion and fin­ger-wag­ging aimed at the stu­dents, as when Haver­ford com­mence­ment speak­er Wil­li­am Bowen, a former Prin­ceton Uni­versity pres­id­ent, called stu­dents who or­gan­ized against an­oth­er speak­er “im­ma­ture” and “ar­rog­ant.” Mean­while, pun­dits have filled in ludicrous de­mands they ima­gine stu­dents want to make of their com­mence­ment speak­ers, without ac­tu­ally talk­ing to the stu­dents.

Are these “Hitler Youth?” Are they re­press­ing free speech? Are they sys­tem­at­ic­ally squelch­ing un­pop­u­lar opin­ion? We tracked down one of these elu­sive stu­dents to ask what he was think­ing.

Mi­chael Rush­more, who helped lead the stu­dent protests at Haver­ford Col­lege and was singled out for con­dem­na­tion by Bowen, said he was frus­trated by mis­con­cep­tions about op­pos­i­tion to a sched­uled speech by former Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Berke­ley) Chan­cel­lor Robert Birgeneau.

For starters, Rush­more ar­gues, com­mence­ment speeches are not like oth­er cam­pus speeches. There’s no dia­logue, no policy de­bate, no ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion. Speak­ers come — nom­in­ally, at least — to hon­or the stu­dents, who have little choice but to at­tend. Of­ten, as in Bri­geneau’s case, speak­ers are offered an hon­or­ary de­gree.

Many crit­ics have com­pared Rush­more and his fel­low com­mence­ment dis­sent­ers’ ac­tions to the time New York City Po­lice Com­mis­sion­er Ray Kelly was shouted down by pro­test­ers at Brown Uni­versity, but Rush­more con­demns Kelly’s treat­ment.

“Our plans were nev­er to shout him down while speak­ing,” he ex­plained. “The plan was to wear a bunch of but­tons that said, ‘Ask me about Robert Birgeneau.’ Hope­fully they would be­come a top­ic of con­ver­sa­tion.”

As it turned out, stu­dents nev­er got the chance. After learn­ing that Birgeneau presided over the Berke­ley cam­pus in 2011 when po­lice used ex­cess­ive force against stu­dents in­volved in an Oc­cupy protest, Rush­more and oth­ers at Haver­ford wrote Birgeneau a let­ter ask­ing him to apo­lo­gize for the in­cid­ent and ex­plain his role. In­stead Birgeneau op­ted to with­draw from the event (he was not dis­in­vited, as has been re­por­ted). “I do not re­spond to vi­ol­ent, verbal at­tacks,” Birgeneau said in a terse state­ment to the stu­dents.

Enter Bowen, who also spoke at the com­mence­ment and used the plat­form to scold mem­bers of the gradu­at­ing class for their in­ci­vil­ity. When he was pres­id­ent of Prin­ceton in the 1970s, Bowen said in his speech, stu­dents handled sim­il­ar situ­ations much bet­ter. “The pro­test­ers were re­spect­ful (mostly), and chose to ex­press their dis­pleas­ure, by simply stand­ing and turn­ing their backs” to George Shultz, then a Nix­on ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, to protest the Vi­et­nam War.

Funny thing — that seems in line with what the Haver­ford stu­dents wanted to do. “The biggest dis­ap­point­ment of the whole af­fair was that the dia­logue had shif­ted from, ‘Here’s this guy who’s not been held ac­count­able.’ In­stead of talk­ing about that, we’re talk­ing about wheth­er I have the right to say, ‘Hey, this guy hasn’t been held ac­count­able for some really em­bar­rass­ing things,’ ” Rush­more said.

For what it’s worth, Rush­more also says re­ports that Bowen re­ceived a stand­ing ova­tion for his lec­ture were over­blown. He said he saw no stu­dents or fac­ulty mem­bers stand­ing, though some par­ents did.

Com­mence­ment speak­ers, Rush­more ar­gues, are sup­posed to bear some re­la­tion to the val­ues of the school where they speak. And at Haver­ford, the se­lec­tion of Birgeneau struck some as in­ap­pro­pri­ate for a school groun­ded in Quaker ideals of non­vi­ol­ence. “I don’t gen­er­ally think of vi­ol­ent re­pres­sion of pro­test­ers as something that’s very Quakerly,” Rush­more said.

In Janu­ary, a fed­er­al judge al­lowed a $15 mil­lion law­suit, which named Birgeneau, brought by the Berke­ley pro­test­ers against the school to move for­ward. Birgeneau green-lighted the evic­tion of the Oc­cupy en­camp­ment and later ar­gued the pro­test­ers were “not non­vi­ol­ent” be­cause they linked arms to form a hu­man chain.

As Birgeneau him­self said in re­sponse to an in­tern­al re­view of the in­cid­ent, “Our man­age­ment of the protest was in­con­sist­ent at times with safe­guard­ing the norms ex­pec­ted of Berke­ley to pro­tect free speech and as­sembly.” Shortly after the in­cid­ent he said, “I sin­cerely apo­lo­gize” for the crack­down, and “take full re­spons­ib­il­ity for these events.”

Is this really someone the me­dia wants to hold up as a mar­tyr of free speech — a guy who ef­fect­ively thwarted First Amend­ment rights? “Was the fact that we wrote a let­ter really the most egre­gious thing that happened?” Rush­more asked.

The con­sensus in the me­dia cov­er­age of can­celed com­mence­ment speeches is that it’s the Birgeneaus of the world who are be­ing un­fairly si­lenced. But the kinds of people who speak at col­lege gradu­ations are among the least in danger of that any­where, since they have a plat­form to be heard whenev­er they like. Who hasn’t heard from In­ter­na­tion­al Mon­et­ary Fund chief Christine Lagarde or former Sec­ret­ary of State Con­doleezza Rice, two oth­er prom­in­ent people who re­cently with­drew from giv­ing com­mence­ment ad­dresses un­der con­tro­versy?

For stu­dents, com­mence­ment day is a rare chance to be heard.

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