Saturday, May 10, 2014

I do not love thee, Dr. Rice

When Dr. Condoleeza Rice withdrew from a speaking engagement at Rutgers University, after protests on campus, one of my friends posted on Facebook that he would never set foot on the campus or donate to Rutgers again.

My friend is more conservative politically than I am - much more - and his reaction was typical of political conservatives. 

Whether Dr. Rice should have carried through with the speech or not, the arguments my friend and others make are wrong.

The most-heard argument is that the protesters are "silencing" Dr. Rice or infringing her right of free speech under the First Amendment.

These are empty rhetoric (to be polite) and utter hooey (which is what I really think). First: Dr. Rice has not been in any way "silenced." She's not being held incommunicado. She can easily obtain all the media and public attention that she wants.

Second, her right to speak is not being abridged. Although Rutgers is a state university and subject to the First Amendment (unless you agree with Justice Clarence Thomas that the First Amendment does not apply to the states, only to the Federal government), it was Rutgers that invited her to speak and it was she who chose to withdraw after accepting the invitation.

The protesters did not abridge her right of free speech, because they are not the government. When they act as individuals, even organized individuals, they're not subject to the First Amendment.

In fact, if there is a First Amendment argument to be made, it's on behalf of the protesters. The law is clear that they had the right to express their opinion.

A better argument would be that the role of a university is to promote open and honest inquiry into important subjects. It would be more in keeping with the spirit of free inquiry to allow Dr. Rice to speak and also allow others to express differing opinions.

A counter-argument can be made that Dr. Rice, when she served in the Bush administration, was no model of honesty. I'm not sure that her speech would have furthered honest inquiry - but I don't know what she would have said.

The other consideration is that Dr. Rice wasn't just giving a lecture. She was to speak at Commencement and receive an honorary degree (and a large fee). To many of the protesters, her speaking on campus wasn't as objectionable as her being honored by the university.

To be clear, even an entity required by the First Amendment to respect free speech is not required to promote the speech of any specific individual.

Free speech is a recurring issue at colleges and universities, which are full of people eager to express themselves, some too immature to take a balanced view of issues. They sometimes also have - and I know this as an insider in college administration - leaders who are more intent on public recognition than on intellectual inquiry.

Some years ago, the College Republicans at Oberlin College (I'm an alumnus and was working in the administration there at the time) wanted to fire a 21-gun salute in honor of President Ronald Reagan. This was long enough ago that there may not have been any rules about firearms on campus. In any case, the college administration did not try to block it.

Other students did block it, by simply milling around in the plaza where the guns were to be fired. The local ACLU chapter responded by censuring the college, saying that the college had infringed the College Republicans' rights under the First Amendment.

It didn't appear to me that the college, as an institution, had done any such thing. Again, the First Amendment argument seemed to fall at least equally in the other direction: the students who were milling around in the plaza were exercising their right of free assembly.

Many state universities have developed policies that work well to maintain free speech. At one where I worked, anyone could speak on campus at any time, as long as it did not interfere with classes or any other functions of the university. So protests couldn't take place inside academic buildings during classes, and amplification was allowed at only one location, the portico of the university auditorium. 

The same issue comes up regularly in New York City, with protests outside the United Nations complex. Frequently there are both protesters and counter-protesters, on opposite side of the same issue. The city police assign a separate zone to each group and keep them apart, not to prevent either from speaking, but to keep them from hurting one another.

Perhaps the best example is a well-known incident in history. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution denied the use of Constitution Hall, then the only major concert venue in Washington, D.C., for a recital that Marian Anderson, an African-American singer, was to give before an integrated audience. Partly through the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson sang instead in an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to a live audience of 75,000 (far more than the capacity of Constitution Hall) and a radio audience in the millions.

I said that I don't know what Dr. Rice would have said at Rutgers. Although I don't respect or even trust her very much, I think it would be best if she were to give the speech somewhere else or, if that is not practical, publish it.

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