A Lesson in Protest From Notre Dame and an Internet Comment

Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame’s website.

Vice President Pence is currently gaining substantial real estate in the massive expanse of America’s consciousness. As impeachment hysteria shrouds Trump’s public persona, the possibility of Pence is creeping onto us. Feelings surrounding the Vice President remain contentious, and it’s not surprising that the reaction to his speaking at a college commencement ceremony would be as well.

Today, news broke that Indiana’s prestigious Notre Dame University will face a boycott at its graduation. According to the Washington Post, graduating seniors plan to protest Pence’s speaking at their commencement by “standing up and quietly walking out of the ceremony. School officials say they won’t try to stop them.” The students cited Pence’s views on LGBT people, reproductive rights, immigration, and other hot button issues as justification for their resistance.

A comment on the article actually served as my inspiration for writing this op-ed. I had little reaction one way or another to the news until I heard the reflections of a fellow Washington Post reader, who asserted that Notre Dame’s plan to protest is a good one as it “doesn’t turn Pence into a free speech martyr.” I examined the statement for a moment, and came to realize they couldn’t be more right.

Courtesy of MediaIte.

The most obvious example of recent college speech protest is that of the University of California, Berkeley’s. Violence ensued when far-right journalist Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak on campus, and Ann Coulter’s planned visit to the school was subsequently canceled. The violence and cancellations obviously, and reasonably, sparked fiercely heated discourse about the university’s attitude toward free speech. The events escalated to such a level that President Trump even threatened Berkeley via Twitter, proclaiming that “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

Screenshot of Trump’s tweet.

There was, of course, some legal debate as to whether it was truly a First Amendment violation for Berkeley to pull the speakers. Regardless of the constitutional minutia, the event absolutely caused liberals and conservatives alike to rebuke both Berkeley and the violent opponents of the two speakers as significant impediments to the existence of free speech in the public higher education system. Both Yiannopoulos and Milo were able to bolster more support for their respective political causes by becoming the poster children for the libertarian free speech movement.

A demonstrator at the Berkeley protests, via The Independent.

But the Notre Dame protest poses no such risks. Instead of demanding that Pence not speak — and thus inviting an onslaught of free speech criticisms — the graduating students of Notre Dame allow Pence to practice his right to freedom of expression while simultaneously practicing their own. Most importantly, as the Washington Post commenter pointed out, the Notre Dame model of protest avoids the subsequent glorification of Pence that would occur if they were to demand his speech be canceled. Let’s face it: liberals have an image problem (whether that’s warranted or not is for you to decide) when it comes to free speech, and conducting a protest that appears to infringe upon the speech of Pence will only position him as a champion of freedom of expression amidst a sea of liberal oppression; and that is quite literally the opposite of the protest’s objective. Though Notre Dame is a private university, leaving the cancellation or suppression of speakers largely to the university’s own discretion, the undeserved First Amendment martyrdom of Pence would occur anyway if they were not to protest in the way that they are. Basically, this news reveals a very strange and specific lesson: we should all protest public speaking engagements like the Fighting Irish. Go figure.