DeVos an in­ap­pro­pri­ate choice for com­mence­ment

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE - Shel­don H. Laskin, Pikesville

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.

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