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The '60s never left the campus.

Byline: Jay Fleitman

The academic year is over, and college students have either graduated or since left campus. The unfortunate mark left behind by this last school year was the controversy surrounding the prominent commencement speakers who did not get to the podium.

Condoleezza Rice withdrew from giving the commencement speech at Rutgers University after student protesters accused the former secretary of state of being a "war criminal.''

Christine Lagarde, one of the planet's most influential people as the director of the International Monetary Fund, declined the invitation to give the commencement speech at Smith College after an online petition gathered 500 student and faculty signatures that protested her attendance as being the head of an organization which suppresses women in poor countries.

Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, otherwise considered a very liberal university leader, similarly declined to give the speech at the graduation of Haverford College when 50 students signed a protest letter over his unforgivable transgression of having the police involved when members of the Occupy Cal movement unlawfully disrupted his university campus.

The most egregious cowardice belongs to the administration of Brandeis University, which withdrew the invitation of an honorary degree to the international women's activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She herself was born into Somali Muslim society, and was a frontline witness to the abuse and suppression of women in some Muslim communities.

The administration of Brandeis University awarded her instead the insult of withdrawing this honorary degree after her presence was protested by some Muslim students.

It is not clear at first glance why Rice, Lagarde, and Bireneau declined these invitations to speak that they initially accepted. It is impossible to believe their public statements of explanation that they did not want the controversy around their presence to distract from the joyousness of the students' graduation experience.

All three are or were major forces in their domains, and certainly were no strangers to weathering controversy with the likes of world and political leaders.

Certainly, a few protesting undergraduates were never going to intimidate people of this stature.

It takes time and work to prepare a lecture of any length and thought, and for the speakers it also takes time away from their lives and work to travel to these universities. I suspect that a likely motivation for them to withdraw from those speaking engagements was a disinterest in being exposed to the possible spectacle of heckling and being shouted down by protesting students as has become such a common occurrence on campus.

An alternative scenario was the possibility that the school administrations behind the scenes asked the speakers not to come because the administrations were unsure that they could control the student body to prevent protesters from causing disruptions.

Students have a tacit license on campus to shout down or otherwise disrupt speakers with opinions that they do not like. Heckling may be considered by some an act of commitment and daring in support of a passionate belief.

Implicit in the attempt of suppressing the expression of a speaker with whom the student disagrees is that the opinion of the heckler is more reasoned and of more value than that of the speaker, no matter how experienced or accomplished the speaker may be.

Given that this is a student causing the disruption, it is very unlikely that the heckler has the greater wisdom and so this act is much like that of a child putting his fingers in both ears and shouting at the top of his lungs so that he won't hear what he finds objectionable.

This brown-shirt behavior of shouting down a speaker not only betrays disrespect for others and their experience, but also shows a lack of respect for freedom of speech and a lack of recognition that others in the audience have a right to hear the speaker's opinions.

University administrations allow this to happen. It is unclear if this stems from administrators being intimidated by students or by administrations being concerned about looking authoritarian when trying to control disruptive behavior.

Universities are enablers of this behavior by not levying consequences on students who engage in this disruptive harassment which suppresses the opinions and rights of the speakers and the other students who wish to listen.

It appears at times that universities even value this behavior as it demonstrates that their students are passionate and committed. This is an inheritance from the 1960s, when students took to protest over such weighty matters as the Vietnam War and Civil Rights.

Before the 1960s, disrupting and shouting down a speaker would have been a transgression unacceptable on a college campus dedicated to the free exchange of ideas.

Perhaps the time may come when universities again come to value the pre-eminence of the open exchange of ideas and freedom of speech over the rights of bullying and harassment by poorly behaving students.

This would mean that universities become willing to impose consequences for this behavior which would then again be unacceptable.

I'm not holding my breath.

Dr. Jay Fleitman is a resident of Northampton.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Author:Fleitman, Jay
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 30, 2014
Words:846
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