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The Politics Of Commencement Speeches

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Photo Credit Thinkstock

Photo Credit Thinkstock

Dominic Dezzutti By Dominic Dezzutti
CBSDenver.com Blogger
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This is a fun season for high school and college seniors. Graduation ceremonies abound and seemingly fill every weekend with pomp and circumstance.

But along with the pomp and circumstance is controversy. First, national names like Condoleezza Rice were the centers of the controversies, but now there is a local connection with Colorado State Sen. Mike Johnston.

Senator Johnston was invited to speak at a commencement ceremony at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A small group of protestors began an online petition to try to get Johnston disinvited due to his stance on education reform.

The protests did not scare Johnston off, and in fact, he’s happy to make more time in his schedule to sit down and discuss the issues with the very students who protested his speaking appearance.

Johnston joins an esteemed list of high profile speakers across the nation who were protested by the some of the same students that they were invited to address.

It is certainly nothing new for college students to protest an invited commencement speaker. I imagine that it has happened on a regular basis once students found their collective protesting voice in the 1960’s.

But it does seem that the politics of the protested invitations have changed slightly.

Now, the students are being perceived more as bullies than conscientious objectors. The idea of free speech on a college campus seems more threatened than ever. Most of the stories about the protests this year have been more about the nature and issues of the protestors themselves than of the speakers they are protesting.

If that trend continues, how long will it take for universities to grow more backbone to push back against the tide of protests? Which universities will make the bold move to tell small groups of protestors that the very right of free speech they are exercising should also be afforded to commencement speakers?

The dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education has no fear from the protests and was more than happy to re-affirm the selection of Johnston as the commencement speaker. It should be interesting to see if more school administrators take note of the actions at Harvard and of the wave of criticism that student protestors are coming under this year.

Universities need to walk a fine line of maintaining credibility within its own student body, but also in the court of public opinion. After all, higher education is still a business.

It will be refreshing to see this recent move towards supporting the speakers and the idea of free speech grow and become more popular. It could trigger a sea change of political debate on college campuses.

Then again, we are not currently in the age of discussion and rational debate. There will need to be far more vociferous support of the speakers in situations like this to cause real change.

Perhaps situations like this can serve as a lesson for our entire society. If you think it is wrong for a small but vocal minority to protest a speaker simply because they disagree with them, then should we embrace the same tolerance as a society?

We’re getting into the territory that belongs in a college course, but I think you get my point. If we want to see free speech respected on a college campus, that respect begins at home.

To ask the reverse to happen is shirking our own responsibility in the matter.

Dominic Dezzutti’s Latest Blog Entries

About The Blogger

- Dominic Dezzutti, producer of the Colorado Decides debate series, a co-production of CBS4 and Colorado Public Television, looks at the local and national political scene in his CBSDenver.com blog. Read new entries here usually every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Dezzutti writes about federal, state and local matters and how our elected leaders are handling the issues important to Colorado. Dezzutti is also the host and producer of the Emmy award winning Colorado Inside Out on Colorado Public Television.

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