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DeVos an inappropriate choice for commencement

University of Baltimore students protest Betsy DeVos as fall commencement speaker. President Kurt Schmoke says the university will not rescend the invitation to speak. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)

Whenever disputes arise over the choice of university commencement speakers, the term "free speech" gets tossed around like a political football without any reflection on who does, and who does not, have free speech rights in the context of a university commencement.

One thing is clear: a speaker does not have a right to speak at a commencement. That is entirely a matter of privilege extended by a university's invitation to speak. The invitation is subject to rescission at any time, for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all.

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There is another reason United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has no First Amendment right to speak at the University of Baltimore commencement ("Let DeVos speak at UB," Sept. 13). The First Amendment is designed to protect a citizen from retaliation by the government for the exercise of free speech. It isn't designed to protect a government official's right to speak in her official capacity. Therefore, it is the protesters who have the First Amendment right to object to the actions of the University of Baltimore, a governmental entity, in inviting Ms. DeVos to be the commencement speaker.

UB President Kurt Schmoke defends the invitation to Ms. DeVos on the grounds that the university should be a place where divergent views may be debated. And so it should be. UB has numerous venues in which to sponsor symposia, debates and speeches by whomever the sponsoring group chooses to invite. Those are appropriate opportunities to exchange viewpoints because the audience can engage in a dialogue with the speaker at those events. But a university commencement is not such a forum.

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University commencements are almost entirely about giving the graduating class and their families and friends an opportunity to celebrate the graduates' achievements. There is no opportunity to debate a commencement speaker's views. Rather, the speaker delivers an unchallengeable monologue. If a graduate objects to that monologue, his only alternative to being compelled to listen is to forego his own graduation. For speech to be free, both the speaker and the listener must be acting voluntarily. If listening is coerced, whatever speech results cannot truly be called free. Not only will the graduates in effect be a captive audience at their own graduation, but they had absolutely no choice in the selection of the speaker. The University of Baltimore denied the students — the principal stakeholders in their own graduation — any opportunity to exercise their clear First Amendment right to participate in Ms. DeVos' selection.

At this writing, thousands of members of the UB community have signed a petition urging President Schmoke to rescind the invitation. Given these numbers, Ms. DeVos' presence will be a violation of the First Amendment rights of a large percentage of the community not to be compelled to hear her speak. The school should acknowledge its mistake, rescind the invitation and invite the faculty and the Student Governing Association to join the administration in reaching a consensus on an appropriate commencement speaker.

Sheldon H. Laskin, Pikesville

Send letters to the editor to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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