DeVos an inappropriate choice for commencement
Whenever disputes arise over the choice of university commencement speakers, the term “free speech” gets tossed around like a political football without any reflection on who does, and who does not, have free speech rights in the context of a university commencement.
One thing is clear: a speaker does not have a right to speak at a commencement. That is entirely a matter of privilege extended by a university’s invitation to speak. The invitation is subject to rescission at any time, for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all.
UB President Kurt Schmoke defends the invitation to Ms. DeVos on the grounds that the university should be a place where divergent views may be debated. And so it should be. UBhas numerous venues in which to sponsor symposia, debates and speeches by whomever the sponsoring group chooses to invite. Those are appropriate opportunities to exchange viewpoints because the audience can engage in a dialogue with the speaker at those events. But a university commencement is not such a forum.
University commencements are almost entirely about giving the graduating class and their families and friends an opportunity to celebrate the graduates’ achievements. There is no opportunity to debate a commencement speaker’s views. A graduate’s only alternative to being compelled to listen is to forego his own graduation. If listening is coerced, whatever speech results cannot truly be called free.
The school should acknowledge its mistake, rescind the invitation and invite the faculty and the Student Governing Association to join the administration in reaching a consensus on an appropriate commencement speaker.