Rice, Rutgers and academic freedom

Last Thursday, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) spoke at Harvard University despite student protests against his speech. Good. Earlier in the current commencement season former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice cancelled a speech at Rutgers University, and the International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde cancelled a speech at Smith College, both after student protests against their speaking. Their cancellations were regrettable.

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I come from the progressive side of the political equation, and believe it is particularly important that progressives join conservatives in speaking out against this terrible trend of intolerance of speech. In most of these examples, and certainly in the case of protests against Rice at Rutgers, I am very sympathetic with the policies advocated by the student protestors on the issue. I opposed going to war in Iraq, as did the student protestors. Yet it is a horrible practice and horrifying precedent to be banning commencement speakers because we disagree with them on policy, no matter how strongly.

Students should demonstrate, respectfully but publicly, against commencement speakers with whom they disagree. It would have been far better in the cases of Rice at Rutgers and Lagarde at Smith for faculty and students to have used their speeches to organize thoughtful and vigorous debates about the policies. My guess is that Rice and Lagarde would have been more than happy to personally engage with the students, before or after their speeches, and join those debates. This would have turned those occasions into true educational experiences in the best traditions of academic freedom and democratic debate.

It is particularly distressing that the faculties in these fine schools did not forcefully defend the free speech principle and creatively organize "teach-ins" or formal debates the way they are structured at, for example, Oxford University. Academia should not be granting or refusing tenure, or extending or revoking commencement invitations, based on the political correctness of the proposed speaker. We should welcome alternative views. We should debate them. We should not censor or self-censor them. This is what academic freedom, democratic discourse and education should represent.

As a progressive who vigorously disagreed with Rice on Iraq and other foreign policy issues, I equally vigorously defend her right to speak and wish the students and faculty had used the moment to debate her views, and not demean the core notion of academic freedom, which is a slippery slope free nations would be wise to avoid.

Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) and former Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), who was then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. Contact him at brentbbi@webtv.net.

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