Michelle Goldberg makes a very smart point here:
Are the protests against commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients an example of the anti-liberal left?
I think there’s a difference between stopping someone from speaking and stopping a college from honoring them. Everybody gets to speak, but not everybody gets to be honored.
Not everyone deserves a $35,000 speaking gig. I think that Brandeis was right to revoke Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree. It was madness to have a Jewish institution putting its imprimatur on someone who has called for the massive repression and conversion of Muslims. It was their fault for not doing their due diligence and not realizing what she said.
What about commencement speeches? Are they invitations to speak, or are they honors that colleges are conferring?
These people aren’t being invited to share their ideas or argue their ideas. They’re being invited to solemnize an important occasion for these students. I don’t know how meaningful of a distinction that is, but it’s a difference.
You invite someone to be a commencement speaker presumably because you see them as a model and a potential inspiration for your students, whereas you invite someone to speak because they have something interesting and potentially provocative to say.
While I’m kind of uncomfortable with this trend, and I think that these protests should be maybe used sparingly, I think that being a commencement speaker has a certain honor attached to it that’s different from just being involved in the regular exchange of ideas on college campuses.
I was furious when [evangelical pastor] Rick Warren was invited to give the invocation at Obama’s first inauguration, even though I feel very strongly that Rick Warren has the right to say whatever he wants to say. I believe very strongly in Rick Warren’s freedom of speech. I also feel his presence at that event was an insult to a lot of Obama’s supporters.
Right. Free speech norms should mean that people just invited to give a talk on campus for no or modest fees should generally be allowed to speak. Ornamental degrees or commencement speeches are a completely different thing for the reasons Goldberg explains, and I’ve tried to as well.
This is Paul’s department, but aren’t most five figure commencement speeches essentially a racket? Left, right, or center, and no matter how smart the speaker, given the format it’s very difficult to craft a commencement speech that doesn’t fall in between “platitudinously unmemorable” and “terrible.” Large fees to speak at these ceremonies seem like another way for elites to ivory backscratch each other with student/taxpayer money.