Speak and let speak

The University of Minnesota Senate was right to reject a proposal to cancel Condoleezza Rice’s appearance

On Thursday, the University of Minnesota Senate, which comprises faculty, students and staff, voted 122-21 to reject a proposal condemning an upcoming appearance by Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State. The proposal was submitted by a small group of activists in an organization called Students for a Democratic Society. The proposal accused Rice of participating in “efforts to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq” and allowing “waterboarding and other torture tactics” to proceed. Because of these offenses, the proposal argued, Rice does not deserve the honor of speaking at the university.

The arguments in favor of allowing Rice to speak seem largely to be centered around upholding free expression and open dialogue, while the arguments in opposition to her appearance focus on the claim that she should be formally reprimanded for her role in the Bush administration. The two arguments seem to miss each other rather than responding to each other, especially since Rice is not going to speak about United States foreign policy; the topic of her speech is the civil rights movement in the U.S.

Given the Students for a Democratic Society’s justification for their stance, a better argument in opposition to their proposal would be that if Rice is “a war criminal,” as faculty sponsor of the proposal William Messing claimed, her prosecution is up to the United States court system, not to the University of Minnesota. If the students feel Rice should be held accountable for her actions during her term as secretary of state, they ought to shift their activism away from the University of Minnesota and direct it toward the Department of Justice.

Rice is not the first public official to be accused of misleading the American people. Former President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, but was acquitted by the Senate. No formal action was brought against Rice after the American people learned the claim about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was unfounded, nor was any action brought against other members of the administration, such as former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, who admitted he passed along false information to the public, or former President George W. Bush himself.

In none of the above cases has intentional dishonesty been conclusively proven. That debate may be ongoing, but it is not set to be debated at the University of Minnesota. There are instances where a speaker’s credibility is more suspect, but this is not one of those cases. Rice’s experience in the American political system earned her a position of significant merit, and her personal background adds to the expertise she has to offer.

As a black woman who grew up in segregated Alabama and went on to hold high political office — in fact, as the first female African-American secretary of state — Rice has a perspective to offer on the state of civil rights in America that perhaps no one else can. The Senate rightly rejected the proposal, making a statement in favor of allowing the student body hear Rice’s opinions.

Students who do not think Rice is a credible speaker because of alleged dishonesty can opt out of attending the presentation. And those who do attend should be welcome to debate her remarks on civil rights in the appropriate manner and setting. But it is important to keep the two issues separate in order to allow such discussion to proceed.

Published April 7, 2014 in Opinion

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