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June 03, 2019


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John K. Wilson

Steven Lubet wrongly accuses me of hypocrisy. I do praise student protesters who call for official condemnation of offensive professors rather than censorship, because condemnation is a much, much less severe threat to free speech. But that doesn’t mean I think top administrators should agree to denounce faculty (or even the lesser danger of condemnation by a faculty council, as happened at DePaul after my blog post was written). Top administrators should be reluctant to denounce faculty or students for their political views, because of the chilling effect it can have on the campus. Nevertheless, I believe that academic freedom also protects the right of administrators to speak.

What NYU did, however, goes far beyond “official criticism” and into censorship. When a university demands prior approval of speeches, that is a form of censorship. When a university announces that if it had known what Thrasher was going to say, he would have been banned from speaking, that is a form of censorship. When a university declares that Thrasher would have been banned from speaking if they had read his tweets, that is a form of censorship.

Commencement ceremonies may be unique events, but they are still held by universities, and they should still meet the basic standards for intellectual activity and free expression that universities are supposed to uphold. We should reject Lubet’s naive belief that administrators freely allowed to censor a commencement speech would never consider engaging in repression at another time when the spotlight is off them. You may agree with Lubet that commencement addresses should be bland or you may agree with me that they should be provocative. But we should all agree that it’s wrong for universities to censor speakers, even (and especially) at commencement.

Steve L.

It is good to learn that John K. Wilson believes that administrators have the academic freedom to criticize speakers, although you would not have known that from reading his original post. I trust that means he rejects the NYU AAUP’s position opposing all “official rebuke[s] of speech” on campus. In the Hill case, Wilson endorsed official censure of a professor’s published work, which then actually happened in the form of a statement from the acting provost and condemnation “in the strongest possible terms” by the Faculty Council. It is odd indeed that Wilson considers this less generally chilling than the criticism of Steven Thrasher. Virtually every academic publishes essays from time to time, but only a handful will ever speak at a commencement ceremony. Subjecting publications to censure would affect far more faculty than criticism of a graduation speech.

If Wilson had limited his original post to the issue of advance approval – which I also reject – I probably wouldn’t have replied. But he is nonetheless wrong in his sweeping claim that the administration cannot vet graduation speakers for appropriateness, even if it is based on extra-mural tweets. No major secular university is likely invite Congressman Steve King to give the commencement address, for example, due to his highly offensive statements about immigrants and others. Thrasher is not in that category, or even close to it, but there are any number of potential speakers – some of whom are quite well known and accomplished – who can and should be ruled out because of tweets and other statements.

Wilson calls me naïve because I question his assertion that reasonable guidelines for commencement – leading only to ex post criticism – will lead to “repression” elsewhere. But Wilson’s argument goes beyond the standard slippery slope into a predicted avalanche. He has the burden of proof on such a connection, requiring him to tell us where and when that has ever happened. There is one well known instance where it did not. In 2014, Brandeis University withdrew an invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had been scheduled to receive an honorary degree and present the commencement address. Whether that was right or wrong, the disinvitation was not followed by “repression at another time when the spotlight” was turned away.


Prof. Wilson, if Thrasher had given a speech criticizing the use of racial preferences in college admissions and employment, would that change the language that you (and the AAUP) would have used?


This is why there should be no speeches at commencements. Son graduated from London School of Economics. Opening remarks by head of school, each grad called on stage to get diploma. Done in under 90 minutes.

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