Is protesting a commencement speaker an act of free speech or censorship?

This is the question that many Americans are asking themselves in the wake of a recent spate of commencement controversies. Students at several universities have protested the scheduled speakers at their graduation ceremony, prompting many notable figures to withdraw their invitation — among them former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers, International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde at Smith, and retired UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgineau at Haverford.

(AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jason Getz)

(AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jason Getz)

The backlash has been strong and swift, with most mainstream media outlets condemning the protesters from the conservative Wall Street Journal to the liberal New York Times.

In fact, the condemnation has even come to the commencement ceremonies themselves, with former Princeton President William Bowen disapproving of the students’ actions in his substitute speech for Birgineau at Haverford:

“I regard this outcome as a defeat pure and simple for Haverford, no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.”

Yet, some are still ardent in their defense of the commencement protesters for expressing disapproval. After all, isn’t that an act of free speech itself? Joel Whitney makes precisely that point in The New Republic, commenting on the Haverford case:

The students’ making their voices heard is debate. It may not be the debate the administrators or Chotiner wants it to be—a debate from which the students have largely been excluded. But when you look at the details, it’s hard to argue that these are examples of an abridgment of free speech, open debate or liberal tolerance, when, as Sienna Mann, a graduating senior at Haverford (where Birgenau was to speak), said in a phone interview, “Really, we should be celebrating these students’ using their voices.”

Granted, there’s no doubt that the commencement dissenters were exercising their free speech in expressing their disapproval of scheduled speakers. They have every right to do so, just as universities have every right to host the controversial speakers.

The more important question is what their free speech was aimed at. If it served to open a dialogue about an important issue, then it should be celebrated for its democratic spirit. However, if it served to silence a discussion and effectively censor a speaker, then it should be condemned for violating the spirit of free speech.

William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, is conferred an honorary degree by Haverford College President Daniel Weiss before delivering commencement speeches to the 2014 graduates of Haverford College, Sunday, May 18, 2014. Bowen blasted college students as "immature" and "arrogant" for protesting another speaker who then decided to withdraw. (AP Photo/The Philadelphia Inquirer, Clem Murray)

William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, is conferred an honorary degree by Haverford College President Daniel Weiss before delivering commencement speeches to the 2014 graduates of Haverford College, Sunday, May 18, 2014. Bowen blasted college students as “immature” and “arrogant” for protesting another speaker who then decided to withdraw. (AP Photo/The Philadelphia Inquirer, Clem Murray)

Unfortunately, the commencement dissenters’ speech served the latter, as evidenced by the open letters each protesting faction sent to their administrations.

Rutgers’ open letter explicitly called on President Robert L. Barchi to withdraw Rice’s invitation because her past service in the George W. Bush administration violated “Rutgers’ legacy of morality and justice.”

Haverford’s open letter demanded Birgineau apologize for his past actions breaking up an Occupy protest in 2011 (despite the fact that he already did) or they would “call for the college to withdraw its invitation.”

Smith’s open letter following Lagarde’s withdraw offered nothing but smug satisfaction that the IMF would not be sending their “symbol of imperialism” to speak to them.

In short, the aims of all three universities’ commencement dissenters was not to exercise speech to promote discourse, but rather to silence it. While the protesters did not violate the law in any way by expressing their opinion, they nonetheless violated the spirit of free speech by seeking to censor others.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Photo Credit: Getty Images

If these students were true liberals in the classical sense of the definition defending individual rights, they would have sat through their commencement ceremony to hear what the speakers had to say and respond afterwards through open dialogue.

As the great classical liberal John Stuart Mill once wrote about censorship:

“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Sadly, the commencement dissenters robbed their student body of exactly such an opportunity, favoring single-minded self-righteousness over open dialogue.

Casey Given is an editor and political commentator at Young Voices, a startup aimed at promoting Millennials’ voice in the media.

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