Commencement Speeches Are Not Free Speech

It’s that special time of year when protests erupt over commencement speakers at various colleges and universities around the country.  Then editorial writers and talking heads blather endlessly about the subject, and comment sections on web sites erupt in abuse and foolishness.

2014-09-30-talkingheadsI’ve watched the yearly uproar about commencement speakers being invited (or uninvited) with disappointment.  Why?  Because the discussion is consistently off base.

One thread that comes up over and over is that students protesting a speaker’s invitation interfere with free speech. That’s just idiotic, and completely misunderstands the Bill of Rights.  Someone like Dick Cheney, for instance, is free to speak about his beliefs, his past, his hopes and dreams, his view of foreign affairs, whatever he likes anywhere he wants to.  And he does. He’s a public figure and can appear on TV talk shows, can publish Op Ed pieces, blogs, essays and books.

But the First Amendment says nothing about people who are invited to speak somewhere and are paid to do so.  It specifically refers to government intervention in individual expression.  That’s simply not the case where a speaker proves controversial and campus protests arise.

Just as foolish as invoking “free speech”: the noxious moralizing about how students should be open to a free expression of ideas.  The Washington Post editorial board hasn’t been alone in taking that tack, but are they for real? After four years of college, you don’t want a lecture in the middle of a grueling, dull, long ceremony in the heat–and you shouldn’t get one.  Some schools even have two speakers from opposite political sides of a question to “promote open discussion.”  That’s a joke.

graduates_1Commencement speeches aren’t seminars or workshops with Q&A.  They’re supposed to be inspiring and entertaining.  Funny, if possible.  They’re throwaway, forgettable, a moment’s ornament as Edith Wharton put it in another context.  And that’s okay, because graduation is about transitions, about moving on, about celebration.  The ceremony isn’t an intellectual milestone for anyone involved,A it’s not meant to go down in history, and the speaker sure isn’t Moses coming down from the mountain top.

Academic freedom doesn’t suffer and nobody’s rights are interfered with if someone gets invited at a very hefty fee to speak to a graduating class of students, and is uninvited.  Free exchange of ideas?  The only exchange is the speech the speaker gives and the check that speaker leaves with.

colbertLev Raphael is the author of the suspense novel Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Larger Classes Can Cheat Students

As the author of twenty-five books in many genres, I do a lot of touring and public speaking.  That includes speaking at universities where faculty clue me into their struggles in and out of the classroom.  One of the things that gripes professors at state schools is when they hear administrators publicly congratulating themselves on doing “more with less” in the face of budget cuts.

It sounds lovely and even heroic, doesn’t it?  But it never seems to apply to the administrators themselves.  What exactly are they sacrificing? They don’t take pay cuts and work harder, or work longer hours.  Their salaries keep going up, as national surveys show.

One thing it does mean is that their underlings–professors and adjuncts–teach ever larger classes.  The pressure on class size across the country is insidious and undermines educational excellence, but nobody in charge seems to care or understand its impact.

A year and a half ago, I had a class of amazing fiction writers who were funny, smart, wildly diverse, and hard-working–but there were twenty-nine of them.  That’s right, twenty-nine.  In a creative writing class.

There was no way I could give individual students the attention they needed.  I did the very best I could, though, and got a hearty round of applause the last day.  I applauded them back because I was so proud of their work ethic and their talent.

But I think that like many students around the country, they deserved a much smaller class.  Creative writing is intimate, intense, and has the potential to change people’s lives.  I saw that more recently in another creative writing class that was equally talented, but had only eighteen students.

These students got to know each other’s work and each other in a much deeper way.  They quickly formed a private Facebook group; chipped in for a coffee machine and coffee to use at breaks; and they were were concerned when someone was absent. They shared class jokes; they shared moments of deep emotion; their writing changed; they changed.

Thanks not just to their personalities and interests, but to the class size, they became a devoted community of learners and teachers.  Isn’t that we hope for?

 

Commencement Speech isn’t Free Speech

I’ve done hundreds of public talks of all kinds, including after-dinner speeches and keynote addresses for international conferences, and I’ve watched the whole uproar about commencement speakers being uninvited this past spring with disappointment.

Why?  Because the discussion has been so consistently wrongheaded.

One thread that comes up over and over is that students protesting a speaker’s invitation interfere with her free speech.  That’s just idiotic, and completely misunderstands the Bill of Rights.  Condi Rice, for example, is free to speak about her beliefs, her past, her hopes and dreams, her view of foreign affairs, whatever she likes anywhere she wants to.  She’s a public figure and can appear on TV talk shows, can publish Op Ed pieces, blogs, essays and books.

But the First Amendment says nothing about people who are invited to speak somewhere and paid to do so.  It specifically refers to government intervention in individual expression.  That simply did not happen in her case or in any other case where a speaker was controversial and campus protests arose.

Just as foolish as invoking “free speech”: the sententious moralizing about how students should be open to a free expression of ideas.  The Washington Post editorial board isn’t alone in taking that tack, but are they for real? After four years of college, you don’t want a lecture in the middle of a grueling, dull, long ceremony in the heat–and you shouldn’t get one.

Commencement speeches aren’t seminars or workshops with Q&A.  They’re supposed to be inspiring and entertaining.  Funny, if possible.  They’re throwaway, forgettable, a moment’s ornament as Edith Wharton put it in another context.  And that’s okay, because graduation is about transitions, about moving on, about celebration.  The ceremony itself isn’t an intellectual milestone for anyone involved, it’s not meant to go down in history, and the speaker is not Moses descended from the mountain top.

Academic freedom doesn’t suffer, and nobody’s rights are interfered with if they get invited at a very hefty fee to speak to a graduating class of students, and then get uninvited.  Free exchange of ideas?  The only exchange is the speech the speaker gives and the check she leaves with.

Pissy Professors

http://ransomedbeggar.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/arrogant-boss.jpg

I write a mystery series set in academia and now and then fans ask me, is it really that bad?  Are professors that selfish, backbiting, and ungenerous?  Well, obviously not all of them are, but academic culture from school to school has quirks and even  idiocies that make great material for satire.  Sometimes the behavior is egregious, sometimes it’s just ridiculous. Either way, it’s fodder for fiction.

Case in point.  At one private college where I read from one of my most successful books, I wasn’t brought in by English or Creative Writing faculty, but by another department that I won’t name.

I love readings.  I have a theater background, years of experience on radio, and I’ve done hundreds of readings on three continents. I’ve also taught workshops for writers on how to do readings, which require practice and art and thought.

Only four people turned up for this particular campus reading, and the disappointed coordinator told me that despite her efforts, whenever she brought in a speaker who writing students would naturally be interested in, English and Creative Writing professors consistently failed to do anything to promote the reading.  They didn’t encourage their students to show up.  They basically cold-shouldered the event.  Why?  Territoriality.  Apparently they feel they’re the only ones who should be inviting authors to campus.

It made me laugh, because it seemed so very typical of academic pettiness.  But it also made me sad because the writing students might have learned something and enjoyed themselves.

I never obsess about  numbers when I do a reading: 4 or 400,  the audience deserves my best, and that’s what I gave them at this college.  Too bad the small-minded English Department and its writing professors don’t do the same, don’t really care enough about their own students to point them towards opportunities right there on their own little campus.  It makes you wonder how else they may be giving students less than they deserve as they jealously defend what think is their turf and nobody else’s.