Free speech, hate speech, no speech
University of Baltimore December ’17 graduates did not approve of the commencement speaker, Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education. At least some of them did not. They had tried petitioning before the big day. Didn’t work. Some faculty were unhappy as well. The University of Baltimore is a publically supported university. Betsy DeVos has never attended a publically funded school in her life. She has made a huge pitch in favor of school choice and giving tax money for vouchers to assist students to attend private options. Of course, the vouchers are only enough to supplement the tuition cost so moderate to low income families still will not have a choice. Protesting students and faculty felt it was hypocritical to give a speaking platform to someone who does not fully support public education.
The President of the University, a former mayor of Baltimore City, believed that a university is a place where diverse views need to be heard and he felt the commencement ceremony was a good place to do that.
So, what to do? Some students and faculty stood and turned their backs on DeVos when she began to speak, including some faculty on the stage. Some people felt this behavior by protesters showed a waste of taxpayer money on their education and showed the university to be a 3rd rate school. One wonders if the university were not publically funded would these critics feel that student behavior was ok. Others went on to say that the mission of higher education is to promote respect for free speech and the exchange of ideas and opinions; and, therefore, DeVos’s speech should have been welcomed. Is it not possible that the protestors believed that their behavior was a function of their right to promote free speech and that they were expressing their ideas by doing so?
The next question is whether the behavior was uncivil and rude. And did it ruin the ceremony for students and their families who just wanted a wonderful day to recognize their achievements. Is a graduation ceremony the place to protest ideas with which we disagree.
There is enough credit and blame to go all around in this instance. First of all, perhaps the university president could have chosen a different venue than the graduation ceremony for such a controversial speaker at a public university. Or maybe he felt without the high-profile event DeVos would not have come to what is really a working-class school of mostly nontraditional students. So did he trade notoriety for a peaceful ceremony for graduates.
Secondly, one looks at the protestors. They tried to head off the event but were ignored. They, too, were looking for a high-profile way to show their displeasure. They, too, were willing to trade notoriety for a peaceful, decorous ceremony.
Finally, perhaps the commencement ceremony was not so much a celebration of academic achievement but a celebration of free speech. In many countries of the world, those protesting behaviors would have been grounds for criminal confinement or worse. Here in our country they were annoying to some, principled to others but a celebration of a basic American right- the freedom to speak our mind as long as we do not incite others to do harm. Free speech, hate speech or no speech- we must always choose free speech.