Commencement Speeches Are Not Free Speech Issues

Senator Tom Cotton–who recently argued on Twitter for giving protestors “no quarter”–is unhappy with Wichita State University Tech.  That school decided to uninvite Ivanka Trump from giving a commencement address.

His outrage is basically the same blather we hear every year about this time.  Predictably, he argued for the importance of hearing “different views,” and the canceled speaker herself brought up “viewpoint discrimination” and free speech on Twitter.

But that completely misunderstands the Bill of Rights. Someone like former Vice President 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 has. He’s a public figure and can appear on TV talk shows, can publish Op-Ed pieces, blogs, essays and books.  So can anyone in the current administration, and Ms. Trump posted her address on YouTube.

But the First Amendment isn’t about guest speakers who are typically paid handsomely for their time. It specifically refers to government intervention in individual expression. That’s just 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.  After four years of college, you don’t want a lecture in the middle of a grueling, dull, long ceremony in the heat–or in the middle of a pandemic–and you shouldn’t get one.  Some schools have even had two speakers from opposite political sides of a question to “promote open discussion.” What a joke.

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 isn’t an intellectual milestone for anyone involved. 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 a celebrity gets invited to speak to a graduating class of students, and is suddenly uninvited. Free exchange of ideas? Please. The only real exchange is the speech the speaker gives and the check that speaker leaves with or gets in the mail–plus free publicity.

Lev Raphael is the author of the mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in many genres.