Hadley Arkes has yet another argument that a few people deciding not to give commencement speeches represents a major challenge to free speech because something. His argument does, it must be said, lead the pack in its liberal use of scare quotes:
When our sensibilities were fed from different sources, it used to be said that, with spring, “the voice of the turtledove has been heard in the land.” But in these recent weeks the landscape has been filled with the sounds of “disinvitations” to speak and receive degrees at what used to be called our “better” colleges and universities. Colleges of the second rank may now be seeking to lift their standings by seeking out prestigious speakers to “disinvite.” The shock of this year has been that the protests have forced from the podium even figures of impeccable liberal stamp such as Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (at Smith College) or Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of Berkeley (at Haverford).
The first fatal problem with this argument — which I assume the scare quotes are supposed to be eliding — is that none of the named figures were in fact disinvited. But even if we want to pretend that a sternly-worded letter from some students with no decision-making authority represents such a coercive force as to reflect a de facto disinvitation, the argument still runs into the problem that it advances a theory of free speech based on the premise that well-connected people have an inalienable right to 1)say what they want wherever they want 2)to a captive audience 3)while receiving honors and 4)five-or-six figure paydays while the people whose debt peonage is funding these rewards have a solemn obligation to say nothing about it. (Damon Linker asserts that this nutty set of values is mandated by “liberalism;” oddly, no liberal thinkers are cited.) To state these arguments is to refute them, so I won’t dwell more on the point.
Arkes, perhaps understanding that much of his audience has seen commencement speeches and are hence unconvinced that people have an inherent right to 35 large to deliver oral Ambien without any criticism, has another example. You might be curious that the article features a picture of Antonin Scalia…delivering a commencement speech at RPI, a curious choice to decorate an article that conservatives are everywhere excluded from giving commencement speeches. (Just this year, Scalia gave a commencement speech that, it must be a said, is an exception to the general rule that commencement speeches are terrible.) But Scalia was the victim of a silencing even worse than having some undergrads write you a letter:
I heard once the president of an Ivy League college remark that his school couldn’t invite Clarence Thomas to campus without providing a “food taster.” One President of Amherst did invite Justice Antonin Scalia to offer a lecture, but 16 members of the faculty announced that they would not themselves attend his lecture, lest they legitimize his presence on the campus. Scalia did come, and as usual he won the hearts of many and impressed all. But there had been a threat on the part of students to stand with their backs to the speaker to show their disrespect. That spectacle was averted when conservative students invited the dissidents to hold a meeting, days later, where they could debate the propriety of inviting to the campus a sitting member of the Supreme Court.
What you have surely already noticed is that even on Arkes’s account nobody was trying to prevent Scalia from speaking. Some faculty said they wouldn’t attend the speech, which strikes me as its own expression of speech. And some students wanted to make a silent gesture of protest they didn’t even go through with. If this is the scariest anecdote Arkes can come up with, we can safely dispose of his general argument, while noting again that the core value of free speech being advanced here is an argument that America’s elites have a right to speak and you have a right to shut up about them.
But — appropriately enough in the context of an argument in which Scalia is the poster boy — we also have a slippery slope argument that shows the opposite of what it intends to:
If we take these decisions seriously, conservative students need not have to sit in acquiescence at a public university as the institution confers honors on people who seek, say, to defend the “right” to kill unborn children. The students might have a right now to purge from the program this imposition of a political orthodoxy they find deeply objectionable.
Um, your point being? If conservative students and faculty want to write letters objecting to commencement speakers based on their support for reproductive freedom, that’s their right. (Arkes is almost certainly overestimating how persuasive these arguments are likely to be, but that’s a different issue.) Who should be honored by a university is a conversation that everyone should be part of, not decided by trustees and upper-level administrators in the fact of everyone else’s silence. And if we can reach cross-ideological agreement that perhaps commencement ceremonies shouldn’t be another venue where America’s underperforming elites shower each other with honors and other people’s money, all the better.