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College speeches

Are college campuses, those alleged bastions of liberal agendas and free speech, actually practicing what they preach when it comes to commencement addresses?

It isn't uncommon, certainly, to see protests at graduation. When universities spend big bucks to recruit keynote speakers, it isn't difficult to find high-profile luminaries that somebody on campus will not like.

But to generate so much protest that speakers either are disinvited or refuse to participate seems somewhat less than the well-rounded educational experience the universities profess to offer. On the other hand, these cases might represent a college student's last opportunity to stand up for what they believe in without fear of reprisal once joining the corporate world. And if anybody should have the right for a little civil disobedience, it is the Class of 2014 -- the most indebted collection of graduates in U.S. history.

This spring, at least three public figures canceled their speeches because of campus unrest spawned by their intention to visit.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opted out of the Rutgers University commencement exercise after students and faculty alike clamored for her removal. Rice did play a pivotal role in the fabricated Iraq War that claimed the lives of 4,400 U.S. military personnel, as well as 174,000 Iraqis. While her personal story could and should prove inspirational, protesters believed her war involvement negated the privilege to take part in the Rutgers ceremony. We can't find fault with the protest, although the same university paid "Snooki" from MTV's "Jersey Shore" some $32,000 to speak on campus in 2011. Who makes for a good role model apparently is a moving target.

At Smith College, Christine Lagarde ceded to the faculty and students who found her position as managing director of the International Monetary Fund too much to take. Another ground-breaking woman with likely a good story to share, her critics cited IMF's unaccountability as being responsible  for negative social and economical effects in the very countries it targets for assistance. We find the accountability standard could have been applied to Lagarde herself -- and protesters would have discovered the would-be speaker mostly without responsibility.

Students and faculty at Brandeis University took issue with plans to grant an honorary degree to its commencement speaker, Ayaan Hirsa Ali. The women's rights activist from Somalia had used broad brushes to describe Islam and how females are treated, going so far as to call for a war on the religion. Strong speech, yes, but not enough to incite followers to take up arms in the cause. But it was enough that Brandeis administrators were forced to change their plans.

Such protests aren't new, nor are they confined to institutions of higher learning. Parents of high-schoolers in Topeka just recently raised a fuss about First Lady Michelle Obama's invitation to address their children. Plans were changed to allow her to speak, just not at the graduation ceremony. Careful negotiations allowed the capital city to avoid national embarrassment, as her controversy appeared limited to her choice of marital partner.

The inherent irony is most commencement addresses are completely forgettable. Yet they are part and parcel of the ceremony's pomp and circumstance.

We don't see any one-size-fits-all solution for resolving controversy surrounding potential speakers. If students and faculty are moved to protest, each instance needs its own answer. It might be armbands, turning backs on the speaker, or even boycotting the event. Should too many rescinded invitations occur, universities need to examine their vetting process.

Or they could follow the lead of the University of Chicago, which only has faculty members deliver the commencement keynote. It is difficult to disinvite anybody whose attendance is mandatory.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net