Consider this twitter exchange:
Brendan Buck @BrendanBuck May 3 I'm embarrassed for Rutgers studentsThat John Boehner's press spokesman would demonstrate such a fundamental misunderstanding of free speech and that protest is an important part of that is not surprising. That President Obama's former speechwriter demonstrates such a blatant misunderstanding and expresses such contempt for protest is distressing.
Jon Favreau@jonfavs @BrendanBuck no fan of Bush policies, but I completely agree
This article provides a bit of articulation on what these gentlemen seem to base "their embarrassment" for the Rutgers protesters:
I realize some will take issue with what I say next, but it left me saddened. It is great that you disagree with me. In fact, I welcome it because this is what discourse is about. [...] Do I have questions and reservations about what occurred during the years Rice was in her positions? I definitely do. But is there something that I think I could learn from her and would it be useful to hear her perspective in a world that is challenging to figure out? Yes, definitely. [. . .] This, of course, speaks to a much larger issue in terms of what academic inquiry and freedom really mean. To some extent we can find concerns and areas of disagreement with everyone. So should we all be silent?Let's start with some basics. A commencement speech is not "academic inquiry." It is an honor. It is not a dialogue. It is a speech. Indeed, it is a commencement speech, which in the normal course of events, is filled with platitudes about the future and "making your way through life's challenges" and the like. Rice's commencement speech was not going to be some great conversation about how she came to engage in a campaign of deceit of the American people to mislead the nation into a disastrous war. It was not going to be a conversation about how Rice came to support the war crime of torture. If anything, it was a symbol of IGNORING all of these issues by making Rice and her role in the Bush administration non-controversial. Sort of a "See? We're past all that" moment.
It was, in fact, the protests that drove the continuing of that conversation, not Rice's being invited to be honored at the cost of a $35,000 Rutgers speaking fee to Rice. "Academic inquiry" was not going to be the point of Rice's speech. Indeed, if she wants a little inquiry on the subjects, the protesters stated expressly they would welcome her involvement in such an inquiry at Rutgers. Somehow I doubt Rice would participate in such an exercise.
I have more to say on the other side.
I've always felt that there has been a general misunderstanding about the fact that protests and boycotts are free speech. The condemnation and boycotts of the Dixie Chicks for their criticisms of President Bush the Dumber were wrong and wrongheaded in my view, but such criticisms and boycotts were speech. The protests against President Barack Obama's invitation to be the commencement speaker at Notre Dame due to his support for a women's right to choose were wrong in my opinion, but they were speech. (Interestingly, President Obama took the opportunity to discuss how the issue is discussed at his Notre Dame commencement speech). Indeed, the event in question is illuminating:
THE PRESIDENT: I also want to thank you for the honorary degree that I received. I know it has not been without controversy. I don't know if you're aware of this, but these honorary degrees are apparently pretty hard to come by. (Laughter.) So far I'm only 1 for 2 as President. (Laughter and applause.) Father Hesburgh is 150 for 150. (Laughter and applause.) I guess that's better. (Laughter.) So, Father Ted, after the ceremony, maybe you can give me some pointers to boost my average.Free speech was not harmed by this exchange. And Condoleeza Rice could have done what President Obama did and not backed out of her Rutgers speech. That was her choice and her choice alone. But what if Rutgers had done as Brandeis did with regard to anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was to receive an honorary degree? Would free speech have been harmed then? In my view, no. As I wrote:
I also want to congratulate the Class of 2009 for all your accomplishments. And since this is Notre Dame --
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Abortion is murder! Stop killing children!
THE PRESIDENT: That's all right. And since --
AUDIENCE: We are ND! We are ND!
AUDIENCE: Yes, we can! Yes, we can!
It so happens I agree with the "shunning" of [Brendan] Eich but disagree with the shunning of Hirsi Ali (I am pretty strongly anti-organized religion). But my personal views on the relative merits of these actions is really not to the point—free speech rights include the right to criticize and yes, shun.Fortuitously for my point, the Donald Sterling affair erupted very soon after. The reaction to Sterling proved my point—there are lines where everyone agrees condemnation and a demand for disassociation is appropriate. Of course, we don't all agree on where that line is. That's the point. No one REALLY disagrees universally with shunning and demands for disassociation, we just disagree on where that line is drawn (except when we all agree, as in the case of Sterling.)
Let me give the most obvious example that in fact everyone agrees with this conception (that non-state actors can shun, boycott, protest, etc. anyone for their speech)—imagine an accomplished person in any field espousing the view that interracial marriage should be outlawed. Who do you suppose would protest in defense against calls for removal of such a person from a position of public leadership? No one, that's who. And therein lies the point—we all agree that lines can be drawn. We often disagree with where the lines are drawn.
One critic of the Rutgers protests against Rice wrote:
For many reasons, I would go see and listen to Rice, and I don't think that means I completely agree with everything she was involved in. But for many reasons, I would go see and listen to Rice, and I don't think that means I completely agree with everything she was involved in. But I am not trying to place her in exile for her leadership in a frightening chapter in our nation's history.This truly misses the point. The opportunities to "listen to Rice" are numerous. She can speak and be heard more easily than the vast majority of the country. The last sentence reveals the difference: I am not trying to place her in exile for her leadership in a frightening chapter in our nation's history. Some of us, including the Rutgers protesters, would like to see Rice's "leadership" be exiled from the acceptable in behavior by our government leaders. The writer does not feel that her behavior was beyond the pale. Many of us, including the Rutgers protesters, clearly do.
The Rutgers protest was speech articulating that view (just as the Notre Dame protesters against President Obama did, or as the protests against Brendan Eich, Hirsi Ali and yes, Donald Sterling, did.) If you disagree with that view, then by all means express your disagreement.
But do not misunderstand that protest is speech.
President Obama, Rice, Eich and even—maybe especially—Donald Sterling have every opportunity, in fact much more than most, including other public figures, to articulate their views. Protests against associations with and honors for them do not silence them. The protests are speech. And if these persons wish to respond to the protests, there is no doubt they have ample opportunity to do so.
Including, in Rice's case, at the commencement speech at Rutgers, fromwhich she chose to withdraw.