Trustees | Freedom of Expression

Abandoning a world of ideas

Disinvited commencement speakers represent blow to free speech
AUGUSTA CHRONICLE   |  June 1, 2014 by Editorial

College is supposed to open one’s mind to a world of ideas.

So why are so many college students so closed-minded? And why are their colleges bowing to their demands to silence those with whom they disagree?

It has become far too commonplace these days for college speakers, particularly at commencement time, to be disinvited—or discouraged enough to withdraw—after student protests against them.

This year the list includes former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali; and Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director.

And let’s be real: The list of the disinvited doesn’t include those “controversial” commencement speakers who are never invited, for fear of such a backlash.

Of course, they can invite and disinvite whomever they please; that’s not the issue. The issue is that a minority of students are shutting themselves and their classmates off from a world of ideas. And they are hurting the cause of free speech for everyone.

It’s not just a commencement or lecture phenomenon, either. School speech codes that seek to protect some students from “insensitive” remarks from other students are effectively shutting down the First Amendment on some college campuses.

What a shame. Not only does the practice of shunning fly in the face of the mission of higher education, but it dishonors higher education’s proud history of not just tolerating controversial speech but embracing it.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a campus free-speech watchdog and advocacy nonprofit, there have been 39 speaker cancellations at American colleges and universities just since 2009. There were only 21 cancellations in the two decades prior.

Those numbers clearly indicate that college campuses are becoming far less tolerant of free speech than they used to be.

“Universities are becoming havens of the closed-minded,” Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal. “What we are beginning to see is a heckler’s veto.”

After Lagarde withdrew as Smith College’s commencement speaker, President Kathleen McCartney wrote: “An invitation to speak at a commencement is not an endorsement of all views or policies of an individual or the institution she or he leads. Such a test would preclude virtually anyone in public office or position of influence. Moreover, such a test would seem anathema to our core values of free thought and diversity of opinion.”


But the thought police have deputized untold thousands these days.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More