"In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them."... ...Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America.
Commentary of the Day - January 12, 2002: "Disagreeing" Disagreeably at Cal State Sacramento. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
Shouting down an unpopular campus speaker has a long, unfortunate history on our nation's campuses. Those of a certain age will remember the disruptions caused by student radicals during the late l960s, and those who think of history in terms of archival research will know that what happened recently during commencement exercises at Cal State Sacramento is not particularly new. Nonetheless, the specter of students cat-calling a speaker off the stage remains appalling, then and now.
What an admittedly small number of the 10,000 in attendance objected to were the questions raised by Janis Besler Heaphy, the president and publisher of The Sacramento Bee. She wondered, for example, if the delicate balance between national security and civil liberties has been put in jeopardy during the anxious days that followed the September 11th attacks. Heaphy made it clear that she was not questioning the war effort or the buildup of domestic security, but that she has problems with the suspension of certain civil liberties that, once conceded, may not be easily recovered.
The crowd, whether confined to the bleachers or more widespread, did not share her views -- and more to the point, did not want to hear her rattling on about them. So, they made it impossible for her to finish what was to have been a nine-minute speech. Cal State Sacramento is not a distinguished university nor is The Sacramento Bee a major urban newspaper, but the disruption created national attention. For some, it was clear evidence that this generation of college students, unlike many of their professors, is uncompromisingly patriotic. They do not care about the niceties of civil protection, especially if those being "protected" might well be terrorists. We are at war, and that alone justifies everything, absolutely everything, the government is now doing. In this regard, the Cal State Sacramento students presumably echo what repeated national polling tell us is the majority view.
Other students, interviewed after the ugly fact, were hardly rally-round-the-flag types.
This was their day, and what they had looked forward to was a short speech that would be light, upbeat, and focused on concerns that the bulk of the graduating class could relate to. Many, reporters learned, were suffering from September 11th exhaustion; they simply didn't want to hear about it. I'm not sure what to say to such students, other than to remind them that they will be living in a post September 11th world whether they like or not. Moreover, commencement addresses (one thinks of Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech) often address important national issues. Apparently, their education had not equipped them to listen to nine minutes of moral gravitas, and to think about its implications.
Does this mean that I think they should simply have agreed with Heaphy and clapped until their hands were raw? Hardly. But a college graduate should know how to disagree without becoming disagreeable -- and this apparently is a lesson many students had not learned in four years at Cal State Sacramento. Instead, they turned an academic ceremony into a version of "The Jerry Springer Show," one in which a chorus of angry boos are hurled at a speaker until he or she cannot continue. To his credit, Donald R. Gerth, Cal State Sacramento's president, urged the crowd to be civil; to his shame, he did not utter the two words that these boorish efforts at censorship required: "Shame, shame!" It never crossed his mind to ask campus security to remove the hooligans although that is precisely what he should have done. Why so? Because those who would disrupt the speech of a person with an unpopular, controversial opinion have no place in an institution of higher learning. This, of course, did not happen, and the damage to free speech was done.
Afterward, and in the face of national scrutiny, the university put its PR wheels into motion: most of the students, we were told, had listened politely to Heaphy's remarks, and there were even those, such as Bob Buckley, the faculty president, who tried to make the case that the students at Cal State Sacramento were no different from students anywhere. "I think she [Heaphy] could have given the speech at any university in America," he said, "and the reaction would have been the same. People in this country are hurt, angry, and vengeful. There's a lot of emotion out there."
However, I would remind Mr. Buckley that the Heaphy speech was not delivered in the first weeks after September 11th. Three months have passed and it is now appropriate to engage in the critical thinking -- and, yes, even dissent -- that struck me as unseemly when served up a few short days after the attack and against the backdrop of the still smoldering World Trade Center. Even more important, Mr. Buckley's efforts to mitigate the emotionalism of the crowd is a sad commentary on the place of reason in higher education.
©2002 Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin & Marshall College.
The Irascible Professor agrees with Professor Pinsker's analysis; however, we think that he underestimates the influence of The Sacramento Bee and its publisher. Though the Bee may not have the same name recognition as The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, or The Los Angeles Times, it remains a major force in California politics, and it has maintained a proud tradition of independent journalism for more than 100 years.
In our opinion Heaphy's comments will have more import in the long run than the boorish behavior of the students at Cal State Sacramento.
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