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Dick Polman: Censorship 1, Condoleezza Rice 0

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Dick Polman
May 6, 2014

Condoleezza Rice has surrendered to the censors.

She announced last weekend that she won't keynote the Rutgers University commencement after all. She said graduation day “should be a time for joyous celebration—and I am simply unwilling to detract from it in any way.” She strongly believes “in free speech and the exchange of ideas,” but insisted, “that is not what is at issue here.”

Oh, come on. It most certainly is.

Rice was told to take a hike by people who would rather cover their ears than open their minds. How pitiful that this kind of thing keeps happening in academia, which is supposedly devoted to free speech and the exchange of ideas.

Yeah, I know, Rice worked for George W. Bush and abetted the march to war in Iraq. But she's far more than the sum of her worst moments. A black child of the segregated South, she became the first black woman to serve as secretary of state. During Bush's second term, she clashed repeatedly with Dick Cheney and the other neoconservatives. She helped forge a major nuclear accord with India, and she was on record as early as 2007 attacking Vladimir Putin's autocratic impulses. Perhaps most of the Rutgers grads would've been interested to hear what Rice thinks these days about Putin.

Robert Barchi, the Rutgers president who participated in the decision to invite Rice (the school's Board of Governors did so unanimously), got it right last month when he said: “We cannot protect free speech or academic freedom by denying others the right to an opposing view, or by excluding those with whom they may disagree. Free speech and academic freedom cannot be determined by any group.”

So much for that principle. A vocal group of faculty members and a few hundred students, applying a liberal litmus test said that a “war criminal” should not be permitted to speak.

Welcome to a very slippery slope. If school officials were to judge every public figure only by his or her worst moments, they would never hire a speaker.

Besides, anyone worth hiring is always going to tick off somebody. That's what happened at Swarthmore College last year, when former World Bank President Robert Zoellnick forfeited his commencement invitation after some liberals branded him a “war criminal” (he had originally supported—but had no role in prosecuting—the Iraq War). That's also what happened earlier this spring, when Attorney General Eric Holder canceled a graduation speech at an Oklahoma City academy after local Republicans threatened to bring protesters.

In other words, censors on the Right are just as virulent as censors on the Left. Open minds are being trumped by closed ears. “Let's hear what the other side has to say” is being trumped by “La la la la la, I can't hear you!”

Indeed, here's the kind of argument that the Rutgers protesters apparently could not abide:

“If left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capability to wage biological and chemical warfare and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons. Should he succeed in that endeavor, he could alter the political and security landscape of the Middle East which, as we know all too well, affects American security. …  I want to ensure that Saddam Hussein makes no mistake about our national unity and support for the president's efforts to wage America's war against terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.”

But wait—Condoleezza Rice never said that. No, those particular words were uttered on the Senate floor, on Oct. 10, 2002, by Sen. Hillary Clinton.

You see where I'm going with this. If Rice should be barred from speaking, then surely a Democratic politician who cast a key vote to aid/abet/authorize the Iraq War should also be barred from speaking. (In Hillary's words that day, “Any vote that may lead to war should be hard, but I cast it with conviction.”) But I bet if Rutgers were to hire Hillary at the 11th hour to speak at the imminent commencement, the liberal litmus testers wouldn't utter a peep.

Censorship is bad; the attendant hypocrisy is arguably worse.

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at dickpolman7@gmail.com. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.



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