As many of you know, I have long lamented the rising intolerance shown at colleges and universities over free speech. Both faculty and students now regularly fight to prevent people from speaking rather than allow a diverse array of views and experiences on campuses. Fortunately, most law schools have sufficient free speech advocates to counter such moves. However, this week the University of Southern California Law School joined this ignoble list when the school pushed Jeh Johnson, the former Obama Secretary of Homeland Security, to withdraw as the commencement speaker. Johnson was a wonderful choice for the graduation and could share not just his incredible career but his powerful personal story with the law students. Instead, he was told by Dean Andrew Guzman that there were “concerns” about his appearance.
A public letter to Guzman was posted from “the two Chicano members” of the law faculty, Daria Roithmayr and David Cruz. Professors Roithmayr and Cruz objected to the invitation over immigration policies. They declared that simply allowing Johnson to speak a graduation “normalizes illegal state violence” and “legitimates” the “fundamental betrayal of core values.” They further denounced Johnson as displaying a “morally repugnant willingness to use those who are most vulnerable among us as means to an end.”
Rather than state such opposing views, the professors wanted to silence Johnson because he does not share their view of past federal policies and practices. They succeeded and in so doing further “legitimated” the use of protests to stop opposing views and experiences from being shared.
Above the Law posted the letter from Guzman to the law school:
I informed Secretary Johnson that some faculty and students have raised concerns about the immigration policies of the Obama Administration and, therefore, about having him as our commencement speaker. Secretary Johnson shared with me that he believes that graduations should be free of tension and political controversy and for this reason has decided not to speak.
Free speech does not mean tension-free speech. However, by canceling the speech, the heckler’s veto has once again prevailed at an institution of higher education.
Johnson is a New Yorker who witnessed the 9-11 attacks on his birthday and often speaks of that experience. He served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York and was then the General Counsel for the Air Force. He was the first African American partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison — one of the nation’s top law firms. He is a fellow at the American College of Trial Lawyers. He later became Homeland Security Secretary during a critical period for that Department under President Obama.
I cannot think of a more worthy speaker but “concerns” by some students led Guzman to reach out to get him to reconsider. The question is whether opposing “concerns” from conservatives would have the same determinative impact. If conservatives raises “concerns” over lack immigration enforcement or open borders advocates, would the school reach out to see if the speaker might withdraw? How about a pro-life concern over a pro-choose speaker? What speakers would satisfy the concern-free speaker criteria?
The alternative is to say that the law school would hear from one of the most celebrated leaders in the legal field and protesters can voice their own views outside of the event. That is the wonderful thing about free speech. Everyone can speak freely. That’s unless you are asked to speak at USC Law School when “concerns” are raised.