Saunders: ‘Heckler’s veto’ a poor conclusion to diploma quest

Shouting down a commencement speaker you don’t agree with is counter to intellectual development.

By Debra J. Saunders /

Warner Bros. Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav had a message for students when he delivered a commencement address at Boston University recenlty: “Show up,” he said.

Alas, a number of students at the ceremony had their own message: “Shut up, Zaslav.”

Some shouted, “Pay your writers,” a reference to the current Writers Guild of America strike, which was announced May 2 and has very little to do a college graduation.

Other students stood up with their back to Zaslav. Some clapped. Some booed. Many of the adults who shared the stage with Zaslav just sat there, because, apparently, it didn’t bother them if overly entitled students tried to squelch Zaslav’s remarks.

At first blush, heckling may seem like an improvement over “disinvitation season,” a practice that peaked in 2016, when the FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) counted a record 42 instances of universities inviting commencement speakers, only to un-invite them after student activists took issue with their politics.

But it is not an improvement, Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, schooled me.

Disinvitations peaked because universities invited controversial figures — think former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — to deliver commencement addresses. When students protested in 2014, Rice graciously announced she would not speak at Rutgers because graduations should be about the students, and she did not want to be a “distraction.”

So “heckler’s veto” scored a win.

Now, university administrators seek out more “anodyne” speakers, ACTA’s Poliakoff noted.

Few conservatives make the cut.

Last year, the conservative Young America’s Foundation, found that only three of the top ranked 100 universities invited a conservative to deliver commencement addresses, while 53 chose left-leaning talkers. That’s hardly representative of the country, but probably highly representative of faculty lounges.

I fear for the future of today’s college graduates, many of whom clearly believe they have a right to not be exposed to independent opinions. Novel ideas make them feel “unsafe.” They’re in college, but they apparently don’t think they can win an argument.

“The increasing unwillingness to allow anyone on campus to hear ideas with which one disagrees poses a grave risk to students’ intellectual development,” Ari Cohn of FIRE noted in 2016. “Rather than seeking to banish controversial or offensive ideas from campus, students would be far better off if they confronted, grappled with, and rigorously debated the views that they find disagreeable.”

Imagine being a parent at BU’s graduation ceremony — or any other institution of higher learning — and realizing that you paid annual tuition in excess of $60,000 so that your children can be taught to not be curious, to not question their assumptions and to be utterly unprepared to compete in a rough-and-tumble world.

“You have a climate on campus that will make students who are already too timid even more timid,” Poliakoff warned.

And when they aren’t timid, they’re heckling in the middle of the mob — yes, they put a face on Twitter stampedes — and degrading a celebration of a college education.

When they grow up, if they grow up, they will look back on this day with shame.

Debra J. Saunders is a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership. Email her at Copyright 2023,

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