The graduating class of 2014 has seen several college commencement speakers cancel due to student opposition, sparking a debate over whether it is right, or necessary, to censor these speakers.
The list of speakers who will no longer be speaking includes former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, and Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California in Berkeley.
While Ayaan Hirsi Ali was still permitted to speak at Brandeis University, her offer of an honorary degree from the school was revoked due to anti-Islamic comments she had made in the past.
“She has her very real personal story, she has her views, and she’s free to say what she’d like to say,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the advocacy group Arab American Institute, in the New York Times. “But for an institution like Brandeis to choose to honor someone like this is really disappointing.”
Ali, who has said that Islam is a “cult of death,” and “the new fascism,” according to the Times, has also supported the idea of closing down all Islamic schools in the West.
“She is one of the worst of the worst of the Islam haters in America, not only in America but worldwide,” Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the Times. “I don’t assign any ill will to Brandeis. I think they just kind of got fooled a little bit.”
In its official statement on the issue, Brandeis said, “She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world. That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values. For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.”
All of the previously listed speakers have been protested for various reasons, including past actions, associations or perceived bigotry. While many students from these respective universities supported the cancellations, other commentators have decried them as needless censorship.
“Millennials have grown up in a world where you are never forced to see, hear or read anything that you haven’t personally selected,” wrote Daily Beast writer Olivia Nuzzi. “We have been able to curate our own little worlds using technology, wherein nothing unpleasant or offensive can creep in. So when we’re forced to sit through a commercial or, heaven forbid, listen to someone talk who isn’t Mary-freakin’-Poppins, we can’t handle it.”
Others have pointed out that these speakers are facing opposition because their views have been seen as "intolerant" when the act of not allowing someone to speak is intolerant in and of itself.
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“How ironic that the persecutors this time around are the so-called intellectuals,” said Kirsten Powers of USA Today. “They claim to be liberal while behaving as anything but. The touchstone of liberalism is tolerance of differing ideas. Yet this mob exists to enforce conformity of thought and to delegitimize any dissent from its sanctioned worldview. Intolerance is its calling card.”
Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. She has experience in journalism and public relations, and is studying political science at Brigham Young University.