Upholding Free Speech at Rutgers

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Posted: March 10, 2014, 2:28 p.m.
by Molly Moore.

On Friday, Feb. 28, Rutgers University’s Brunswick Faculty Council passed a resolution voicing disapproval of Condoleezza Rice as the University’s 2014 Commencement speaker.

The resolution stated that Rutgers “should not honor someone who participated in a political effort to circumvent the law.” Furthermore, the faculty council said that Rice “played a prominent role in his [President Bush] administration’s efforts to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the existence of links between al-Qaida and the Iraqi regime.”

Two things have occurred since members of Rutgers’ faculty spoke out against Rice.

First, the board of governors has continued to stand by its decision to have the former secretary of state speak at Rutgers’ 2014 Commencement. (Kudos to the board.)

Second, there has been a fireball of opinions, accusations and heated debates surrounding the board’s announcement of Rice as the commencement speaker and certain faculty’s disapproval of the board’s selection.

Fox News contributor Juan Williams wrote an opinion piece in which he expressed that the faculty’s disapproval stemmed from liberal “hatred” toward “black conservatives.”

I disagree with Williams on the assertion that criticism of Rice was racially motivated. I believe the faculty’s disapproval of the former secretary of state is purely political. However, I agree with Williams when he said that the “shunning of Rice is especially troubling coming from a great American university. This is the place where debate and dissenting views are to be valued as sacred.”

In 2007, Columbia University invited the then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on its campus. Ahmadinejad addressed his opinions about the Holocaust and Israel, and he questioned U.S. nuclear policy. He also stated, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.”

Though Ahmadinejad’s speech caused many protests, it also evoked applause and cheers from students.

Lee Bollinger, Columbia University president, addressed critics by saying, “to those who believe that this event should never have happened, that it is inappropriate for the university to conduct such an event, I want to say that I understand your perspective and respect it as reasonable. The scope of free speech in academic freedom should itself always be open to further debate. As one of the more famous quotations about free speech goes, it is an experiment as all life is an experiment.”

Bollinger also stated, “I want to say, however, as forcefully as I can that this is the right thing to do, and indeed it is required by the existing norms of free speech, the American university and Columbia itself.”

I give this example to show that part of the beauty of America is the ability to host a controversial speaker. It speaks volumes for America’s high value of free speech. I would have thought if Ahmadinejad spoke and even received applause at Columbia University, that our nation’s first African-American woman to serve as the secretary of state would be deemed appropriate to speak at a commencement ceremony without backlash. I thought wrong.

Rutgers University’s faculty has every right to voice their concern over the university’s commencement speaker. Again, I believe the ability to openly express disapproval is a beautiful thing, and while I respect the Rutgers faculty members’ opinions, I believe their resolution to rescind the university’s invitation to Rice is close-minded and inconsistent with what a university should represent.

At the end of the day, I think it is important to realize that you can’t please everyone. For communicators, it’s especially important to view a situation from all angles. For those who disagree with the decision to honor Rice at Rutgers’ commencement, I quote Columbia University’s president in saying, “I understand your perspective and respect it as reasonable.” However, I strongly support Rutgers University’s president and its board of governors for sticking with its selection of Rice as its commencement speaker.

2 Comments

  1. Gerald Goodman

    Very interesting Molly. The faculty at Rutgers who opposed Ms Rice speaking should also comment on how their position fits with the foundation of faculty tenure, which is academic freedom.

    Reply

  2. Jessica Holt

    I will begin my response to this blog by saying kudos to Molly Moore! Excellent blog and expression of your opinion!
    I also agree with Moore that the expression of opinion is something that our country seems to deeply treasure. However my eyebrows raise when I read something like this. I think that this country is constantly searching for ways to find something negative about the conservative political party all the while highlighting all the positives from the liberal political party. Although this is my opinion many would disagree.
    As far as this blog is concerned, I agree with every point that the author makes and to go further with that, would the university have the same reaction to Michelle Obama coming to speak? I don’t think race had anything to do with the outrage in this blog. Just some food for thought.
    The wording and structure of this blog flow very well and although politics are not always my favorite topic, I enjoyed reading this. This blog post is relatable because I am a college student and interesting because of the content.
    I agree that a difference of opinion is to be treasured but even more importantly, a difference of opinion is to be respected.

    Reply

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