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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

USC's (Bad) Choice

David Schraub of Lewis & Clark has a useful new article titled, They Managed a Protest: Prohibitory, Ethical, and Prudential Policing of Campus Speech. I haven't fully digested it so I have no general commentary, agreement, or disagreement. His focus, or exemplar, is campus protests, especially in "fast-moving" contexts. But he places these in the general realm of the problem of how we "facilitate public debate" on campus. And one point he makes, quite fairly, is that we might spare a thought for the administrators, especially lower-level staffers, who are faced with dealing with these issues on the ground and in the moment. Amen to that, but of course some of the dilemmas he discusses run up and down the administrative chain. 

That is the most charitable light in which I might place USC's decision (announced by the provost, Andrew Guzman, who is also a professor at USC's Gould School of Law) to cancel the speech of its valedictorian at commencement. The valedictorian is described in the Times article I've linked to as having written "social media posts supporting Palestinians," at least one of which a campus group has objected to for the writer's now-standard equation of Zionism to settler colonialism etc. The objecting group, also adopting the tedious language of our times, complains that the university "chose to platform" a student it believes will exacerbate anti-Semitism on campus. The provost's announcement is replete with equally standard language about safety.

I think the university's decision was wrong. If, as its own letter suggests, having the valedictorian speak at commencement is standard--a "tradition," in the letter's terms--and if the selection of the valedictorian proceeded according to its governing processes, as it appears to have, then that tradition should not give way to threats. It's also not clear what those threats are. The Times story reports none, but is not well-reported. The USC Daily Trojan does a better reporting job than that, quoting an official saying that "the University received threats relating to Tabassum via email, phone calls and letters" but declining to provide further details. Unless it has well-grounded fears for her physical safety, it should move forward with the usual order of speeches. The complaint about "platforming" the speaker appears to fall in line with the usual recent complaints about platforming, which is to say it conflates content-neutral facilitation with promotion and agreement. The valedictorian is apparently chosen on the basis of both academic achievement and "service and leadership." Those criteria do not include "social media history" and the service and leadership for which the speaker was cited are commendable, not objectionable. I have no idea what she would have spoken about, but it's not relevant and it's not the reason she was given a "platform," any more than a public school is advancing religion when it selects a valedictorian speaker who has the highest class rank and also turns out to be vocally religious. "Platform," especially in its pernicious verb form, is one of the many recent locutions we could use a long, healthy break from.

But take the mildly charitable view for a second. Graduation ceremonies are indeed an occasion for community, family, and fundraising celebration. Universities want them to be pleasant. One no more wants or expects the Days of Rage at a commencement than one does a portable loudspeaker at a dinner party. If the university is aware of genuine and serious safety concerns, it faces potentially great challenges in assuring that safety--a job which will be done by staff and security officers on the ground. If it faces a threat of more-than-mild protest--say, something that graduates from the usual turned backs or slogans on mortarboards to an attempt wrongly to shout down the speaker, who has precedence according to the speech norms of the occasion and is entitled to be heard--then it will have to use its resources, or those of the police, to ensure the speaker can be heard and that those causing the disturbance either simmer down or are removed (and hopefully, depending on their actual conduct in these still-hypothetical circumstances, arrested or subjected to discipline). That's not the kind of thing universities want to put photos of in their alumni newsletter. As Schraub notes in his article, it will face the blame one way or the other: for failing to protect the speaker or for being too hard on the protesters. 

One can thus sympathize with the administrators and those on the ground. One can assume its choice was not based on the identity or views of the speaker but on the "threats" or reactions it anticipated. But the university's choice was still wrong--and dangerous. The university's announcement says that its decision "has nothing to do with freedom of speech. There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement. The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period." Of course the latter sentence is important. But much depends on what the actual threat is. Again, words like "security" and "safety" can encompass all manner of things, from genuine security and safety to the weaker senses in which these words are now often used, and to something weaker still, like disruption or discomfort or bad optics. I'm doing my best to take seriously the university's statement that it faced real threats to safety without simply swallowing it whole. One may occasionally doubt the accuracy of non-detailed official statements, and the less detail USC gives, the less one ought to credit it. But if the threat to safety were real and grave, such that no amount of security would suffice, I think USC's duty then would be to "choose" to give the speaker a "platform," finding some safer way for her to deliver her intended address before friends and grandees and then broadcasting it.

And the first point is a distraction. No, there is no First Amendment right to speak at a commencement. Yes, it does indeed have a great deal to do with freedom of speech, or, perhaps more accurately, with the system of speech on campus and, in a broader sense, with freedom of speech. That's so not simply because a student wishes to speak, but because this is the speech the university customarily provides and facilitates on these occasions, and it is giving way, altering its "tradition," in the face of identity- or speaker- or viewpoint-based opposition. It has an obligation not to do so. It should prefer a lousy, unpleasant graduation with the intended speech to a graduation ceremony that goes swimmingly, pleasantly, and pusillanimously. That's so especially because it is almost certainly going to get protests and disruptions no matter which path it takes. So it might as well take the right one.   

Posted by Paul Horwitz on April 16, 2024 at 07:32 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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