GMU’s president is right to reject students’ call to cancel Youngkin’s commencement speech

April 3, 2023 12:07 am

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I don’t know Gregory Washington, the president of George Mason University. I am not an alumnus of his school. To the best of my recall, I have never been on GMU’s campus in Fairfax. But I applaud Mr. Washington.

He did what many leaders in academia are unwilling to do these days: He stood up to demands to bar a speaker whose positions many on his campus abhor.

The speaker in this case is the governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin. After he was invited to be GMU’s spring commencement speaker, a student launched an online petition calling for the governor’s invitation to be rescinded.

Among the grounds posited in the petition were his administration’s advancement of policies that limit rights of trans people, that restrict access to literature and that suppress racial equity in  public school curricula. Those actions, the petition asserts, result in “historically marginalizing communities comprising Mason,” and asks Washington to exercise an official, preemptive “heckler’s veto” on the petitioners’ behalf.

I get it. I have voiced objections to all of those policies. The actions against trans people – particularly students – are, in my estimation, wrong and mean-spirited. I understand how they cause real angst, anger, hardships and emotional harm.

The First Amendment, however, prevails over hurtful, hateful, sometimes even inciteful speech, as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly. In a society that values free expression, Youngkin has every right to speak, including at Virginia’s largest state-supported university.

America, sadly, is a culture that increasingly accepts demands to shut down protections that the First Amendment affords us all, especially from radicalized and growing segments of both the political left and right.

The headlines are packed with stories of school boards muzzling a truthful accounting in public school history curricula of the historical mistreatment of African Americans and the banning of books that discuss subjects of gender and sex.

College campuses, traditionally havens for the free exchange of ideas, informed inquiry and robust debate, are not exempt. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports that students increasingly support disinviting speakers from their campuses. It found that Democratic students were 19 percentage points more likely than Republican students to concur that there are times when speakers should be canceled. Last spring at the University of Virginia, the charge to disinvite former Vice President Mike Pence came from none other than the campus newspaper, the Cavalier Daily.

Let’s put aside the fact that a public university has no legal or moral business taking sides and censoring a public policy debate absent a credible threat of violence. There’s a more practical argument against silencing disfavored speech: it doesn’t work.

No one is being forced to accept what Youngkin says. But what harm comes from listening firsthand to what the speaker is actually saying? How does one effectively rebut a speaker’s assertions without understanding them?

What harm comes from listening firsthand to what the speaker is actually saying? How does one effectively rebut a speaker’s assertions without understanding them?

– Bob Lewis

Additionally, nothing prohibits opponents from peacefully expressing their own views. The same constitutional right that protects the speaker allows opponents (even graduates in their robes) to turn their backs in protest. People can distribute literature or hold a news conference contradicting a speaker’s points. They can boo or, more unsettling, meet applause lines with cold silence all under the media’s unblinking eye.

And what is to be gained by denying a speaker a campus forum where he or she can be challenged face-to-face? Those interested in what the speaker would say can easily find it on the internet, often in forums free of the dissenters’ balancing arguments.

Calling for adversarial speech to be silenced is lazy and counterproductive. Competing in the marketplace of ideas with your own concepts is hard but it works. It comes down to how much you really believe in the might and merit of your argument.


Editor’s note: This column has been corrected to reflect the current name of the organization Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which was incorrectly labeled by its previous name, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]