Commentary: Free speech and moral duty


By John Krull                            John-Krull-column-mug-320x400

It’s the season for graduation ceremonies.

That means days of celebration – caps and gowns, diplomas waved in triumph as graduates leave the stage, families hugging, kissing and crying with triumph and pride.

John Krull, publisher,
John Krull, publisher,
That’s all good stuff.

What’s not so good is the increasing tendency to see commencement ceremonies as a time to shut down the essence of education – free discourse.

Commentary button in JPG – no shadowThe most recent high-profile sign of this disturbing trend is the dust-up Rutgers University had over inviting former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to speak at the school’s commencement ceremony. After much dispute and many protests, Rice decided not to speak at the university.

Both students and – sigh – faculty members opposed Rutgers’ decision to have Rice speak. The opposition stemmed from Rice’s service in President George W. Bush’s administration, where she supported both the Iraq War and the use of torture while interrogating prisoners suspected to have engaged in terrorist activities or to have connections with terrorists.

The Rutgers students and faculty members who didn’t want Rice to speak at the university said the policies the former secretary of state supported and helped implement were violations of human rights.

I agree with them about the human rights violations, up to a point.

In my view, the Iraq War was a costly mistake from which we will be recovering for decades. And, to paraphrase former Republican presidential candidate (and former tortured prisoner of war) John McCain, not engaging in the torture of our captives is one of the ways we Americans demonstrate that we’re different from those with whom we fight.

But, then again, supporting the right of those with whom we disagree to speak freely – and to listen to those with whom we disagree – also is supposed to be one of the ways in which we’re different from those with whom we fight.

In justifying their opposition to having Rice speak, anti-war activists sometimes cite the commencement address former New York Times war correspondent – and later anti-war activist – Chris Hedges gave at Rockford College in Illinois in 2003.

During Hedges’ speech, in which he criticized the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, members of the graduating class turned their backs to him in silent protest as he spoke. People booed and tried to shout him down. Several soon-to-be graduates, dressed in their black academic robes, tried to rush the stage to stop his speech and security had to restrain them. At least twice during the 18-minute talk, people angry about the nature of Hedges’ remarks unplugged his microphone.

All in all, it wasn’t exactly a proud moment for civility and academic discourse.

Rice said she decided not to speak at Rutgers in part because she didn’t want the university’s commencement to be a repeat of the Hedges-Rockford donnybrook. She said that graduation ceremonies should be happy times, devoid of rancor.

That’s nonsense.

Commencements are beginnings, not ends – ceremonies in which we launch graduates at every level into a larger world that will demand they assume greater responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is sifting through differing opinions, policies and points of view for one’s self and arriving at one’s own considered – that word is important – positions on questions that matter.

Doing so is both a test of intellect and of character. And the First Amendment exists not just to make sure that we all may speak freely, but to make certain that we Americans never have to outsource those tests of intellect and others.

Thinking for ourselves is both our right and our moral duty.

To say that commencement addresses never should include controversial or disagreeable ideas is to undercut the very idea of education, which always is a quest for greater understanding.

To understand something is not the same as agreeing with it.

When we shut down free discourse, we shut down the path to greater understanding, too. What’s the worst thing that could have happened if the folks at Rutgers University had listened to Condoleezza Rice speak?

They might have learned something they didn’t know before.

At a college or university – at any school, for that matter – is that such a bad thing to have happen?

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.