I was in college during the Viet Nam War, and students were very involved in actions either for or against the conflict. Pro or con, people stayed informed not only about the conflict itself, but with the political world that produced it and extended it.
During my years of teaching high school, I heard people lamenting over the years that students had become self absorbed with little attention being paid to the world around them.
Conservative and liberals had the same lament. Both feared for the future of the country with the younger people being more interested in video games, social media, and basically turning their backs on the real world.
But then, it seems that when young people do get involved, or suddenly show they were not all that disconnected with the world we assume they had abandoned, depending on which political ideology is viewing their actions and how close those actions are to the ideology, the involvement, once craved, becomes either a good thing or a bad thing.
Two cases in point, and since I mentioned the involvement of students, I will point out they involve graduations and graduation speakers.
Because students at Rutgers University objected to Condoleeza Rice’s being their graduation speaker this year because of her connection with the war in Iraq, Ms Rice has stated she will not speak.
As she explained on Facebook, "Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families, Rutgers' invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time”.
An open letter in the student paper, The Daily Targum, on April 30 objected to her being the speaker because of the part she played in the destruction of Iraq, and because "Rice signed off to give the CIA authority to conduct their torture tactics for gathering information from detainees as well. These are clearly human rights issues. By inviting her to speak and awarding her an honorary degree, we are encouraging and perpetuating a world that justifies torture and debases humanity."
The letter’s claim was based on Ms Rice having been the National Security Advisor who, according to a 2009 Senate intelligence report, had approved waterboarding.
A Resolution in Opposition to Condoleeza Rice as Commencement Speaker that was contained in the minutes of the February New Brunswick Faculty Council Meeting, started the discussion when the minutes of that meeting were publicized.
There was a sit-in at the university president’s office involving over 50 students.
In response to Condoleeza Rice's Facebook announcement, President Robert Barchi stated, "While Rutgers University stands fully behind the invitation to Dr. Rice to be our commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree, we respect her decision not to participate in the upcoming Rutgers University commencement, which she clearly articulated in her statement this morning."
Rice had written, "I am honored to have served my country. I have defended America's belief in free speech and the exchange of ideas. These values are essential to the health of our democracy. But that is not what is at issue here. As a Professor for thirty years at Stanford University and as its former Provost and Chief academic officer, I understand and embrace the purpose of the commencement ceremony and I am simply unwilling to detract from it in any way."
The discussion is not over, as there is a social media petition to have her back as speaker.
But, either way, the students are involved, and they obviously have expressed an opinion with regards to a major U.S. action that took place during a large chunk, about half, of their lives.
We on the outside may have our own opinions about whether she should or should not speak, and why, but we do have to admit the students are involved and the decision may rest with them.
In the meantime, conservative media pundits are not happy. they see this as an attack on freedom of speech.
In the other instance, it is actually not a case of the graduates having a say, but of outside entities exerting influence.
Eric Holder was scheduled to speak at the commencement ceremony for the 52 law enforcement officers graduating from the police academy in Oklahoma City. I know some police officers in that city, and I assumed there was a possibility of my knowing some of the graduates as well.
According to the local paper, the graduating recruits consist of “35 men and seven women; the youngest at 21 years old and the oldest at 42 years old. Nineteen have bachelor degrees and six have associate degrees. Three previously served in law enforcement and four are second-generation Oklahoma City police officers".
So when I read various headlines online that said that the graduating cadets were protesting Eric Holder’s being their graduation speaker, it struck me as odd that they had chosen to politicize their graduation by objecting to their “boss” as being the speaker. If this were true, it certainly would be a bad example to the general public that those who swear to uphold the law in a profession known for discipline and following orders would begin their career with a political demonstration on such an important day.
But, a quick run through of the articles showed that what was happening was misrepresented by certain headlines, and actually it was not the cadets who were openly protesting, although there may have been some who did not like the idea, but the protesters were politicians already in office or running for one, and that the headlines on the conservative sites were the ones with the misleading headlines.
According to one article that did not mention the cadets, although it did announce in the headline that the cadets were protesting his presence at their graduation, “Attorney General Eric Holder canceled a speech to a graduating class of police cadets in Oklahoma City on Thursday, after crowds of Oklahomans flocked to the ceremony to protest his appearance".
“Crowds of Oklahomans” sounds more numerous than the 100 who actually showed up, and the Cadets who organized the protest was actually State Rep. Mike Turner (R.), who is running for U.S. congress, and who said, "A lot of people just felt that it was very inappropriate for this man, with his track record, to speak to law enforcement officers that demand and expect to be backed up by the government working on behalf of the citizens, not against the citizens".
It also did not mention that Eric Holder had canceled his appearance the day before, long before any protesters had shown up.
As was to be expected, Police officials told the local media that they don't let politics drive their decisions.
When Holder notified the academy that he would have to cancel because a Department of Justice meeting that had been previously scheduled would not be over in time for him to get a plane to Oklahoma City early enough to attend the graduation, and he would have to bow out, state representative Paul Wesselhoft declared, “Our protest has turned into a victory celebration because we frankly didn’t want him here — and we succeeded”.
So the debate should be this.
Condoleeza Rice is a Republican and a conservative. Some of the students at whose graduation she was to speak objected, and she withdrew. Some students disagreed with this. Whether or not things change, what happened was because of the involvement of the students who objected to her involvement in certain decisions related to Iraq and torture, and if things do change it will be because of the influence of students who think she should speak, and not an outside entity.
In the case of Eric Holder, in spite of misleading headlines that did not match the content of the articles, the objection to his speaking did not come from the graduating cadets, but from outside entities, one being a conservative Republican politician running for a higher office, and the other being a conservative Republican already in office who labeled Holder’s cancelation a triumph worthy of celebration.
Is either, or both, a violation of the First Amendment?
Is one more acceptable than the other because while one was as the result of actions involving those connected directly to a speech, the other was a result of the actions of outside, and obviously political entities?
And, if either is acceptable, why?