Len Niehoff is Professor from Practice at the University of Michigan Law School, where he teaches courses in civil procedure, ethics, evidence, First Amendment, law & theology, and media law. He writes regularly in all of these fields. He is also Of Counsel to the Honigman law firm. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Interesting Ideas

We can tell that spring has arrived because controversies over university commencement speakers are blossoming. The most recent and conspicuous of these bloomed over this past weekend, when Condoleezza Rice withdrew as the commencement speaker at Rutgers University in response to protests by some students and faculty.

Reflecting on these events brought to mind one of my favorite instructors during my undergraduate years: a small, slender, heavily bearded philosophy teaching assistant named John who had a gift for listening and for making every student feel heard and respected. The course wandered into heady territory and occasionally a student would offer an observation that didn't have much to recommend it. When this happened, John would cock his head, nod, and then say something like: "That's an interesting idea. It deserves more careful thought."

This approach to teaching created a safe space where all concepts, perspectives, arguments, and questions could be aired. As the Supreme Court of the United States declared in the Keyishian case, the "classroom is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas." John's students knew, and appreciated, that his classroom was a free and open market. We believed this environment would help make us better critical thinkers. It did.

This familiar understanding of the mission and culture of universities led some people to cry foul over the resistance to having Ms. Rice speak on the Rutgers campus. After all, they said, it can't be denied that Ms. Rice has ideas or that her ideas have been influential. Sure, some of her ideas may provoke or offend some people and engender debate and disagreement. But isn't that what universities are supposed to do?

Others responded that these protests weren't focused on the fact that Ms. Rice was being allowed to speak but on the fact that she was being feted--receiving a $35,000 fee and an honorary law degree. As Juliet Lapidos wrote in a May 5, 2014 column in The New York Times, "the protestor's message was not: We don't want you to taint our ears with your opinions. It was: We don't want to celebrate your opinions." The same distinction has been made by Rutgers historian Rudy Bell and by University of Michigan historian Juan Cole in his Informed Comment blog.

I do not quarrel with the idea that this may be a useful distinction in some cases. There is, for example, a meaningful difference between asking someone to come to campus so they can be heard and asking them to come to campus so they can receive an honorary degree. Nor do I quarrel with the idea that universities have the right, perhaps even the obligation, to decide against inviting certain speakers to campus for a host of reasons: lack of scholarly distinction, redundancy with other speakers, expense, unmanageable safety and security concerns, and so on.

I worry, however, that the silencing / not honoring distinction could put us on a very steep and slippery slope. Consider: What if Rutgers had not planned to give Ms. Rice an honorary degree? Would the $35,000 fee be enough to declare this an honor rather than an invitation to speak? What if the fee were $5,000? What if there were no fee but it was still a commencement ceremony? What if it were not a commencement ceremony but a keynote address at a major conference? Is there an argument that any high profile speaking engagement at a prominent university inherently celebrates the opinions of the spotlighted speaker?

It may be that the silencing / not honoring distinction raises more questions than it answers.

It's an interesting idea.

It deserves more careful thought.     

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