You’ll know Bret Stephens as a conservative columnist for the New York Times. He also got his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago in 1995 and later won a Pulitzer Prize for political commentary. Because of his journalism and association with the University, he was invited to deliver yesterday’s University Class Day speech, an invitation extended by the University. (“Class Day” is the beginning of the Convocation Weekend, or graduation, with the formal cap-and-gown ceremony taking place today.)
The students didn’t like that much, especially because they didn’t have a say in who got to speak. And the speaker is a conservative who doesn’t hate Israel, which means he’s doubly damned. A coalition of students from the groups below thus wrote a very long Google document (see below the fold) calling Stephens a bigot, a racist, a “bigoted ideologue”, and an “apologist for Israeli apartheid” (yes, the signers included the Students for Justice in Palestine). There’s also a “content warning”. Here are the signers:
CareNotCops [JAC: they want to abolish the police]
Environmental Justice Task Force
Students for Disability Justice
Students for Justice in Palestine
UChicago Against Displacement
UChicago Democratic Socialists of America
They criticize Stephens for many things, the one most relevant to this post being his supposed attempt to suppress the speech of other writers at the NYT. The evidence, however, is merely a Twitter thread by writer Wajahat Ali that is entirely hearsay, saying that Stephens has criticized other writers, written to editors (no evidence is adduced), and has also responded to being criticized with more criticism. This is thin gruel. I don’t agree with everything Stephens says in the NYT, but one thing I haven’t seen him do is call for suppression of speech. If he ever did, he’d be violating the principles of the college from which he graduated—the principles he lauded in his talk.
The Chicago Maroon (our student newspaper) reported on the coalition’s criticisms (again, see below the fold), and gave Stephen’s’s response:
In an email to The Maroon, Stephens responded to the statement.
“I read the coalition statement carefully. It is a caricature of my views. It is based on cherry-picked and misleading quotations and bad-faith readings of my work. It also borders on self-parody: To accuse me of being an “imperialist” sounds like 1960s agitprop. For the record, I am not an imperialist, a racist, or anything else the statement accuses me of being.”
In the email statement, Stephens countered that he had a more moderate ideology than what the statement suggested, pointing to some of his political views.
“The more mundane truth is that I’m a moderate conservative and card-carrying NeverTrumper who opposes the Dobbs decision, supports repealing the 2nd Amendment, and favors a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. Last year, the Russian government banned me for life from visiting that country and Tucker Carlson calls me a ‘leftist.’ If this puts me beyond the pale of the ‘coalition,’ it says a lot more about them than it does about me.” (Editor’s note: Stephens included the hyperlinks himself in his emailed statement.)
Well, all the student criticism is fine, even encouraged by our University, for it’s free speech. And to be fair, none of the critics called for the cancelation of Stephens’s speech. As far as I know, it wasn’t disrupted, either.
But Stephens got his own back with his talk, which he reprinted in the NYT. It’s all about the importance of freedom of expression, and gives special encomiums to our recently deceased President and free-speech promoter Bob Zimmer. You can read it by clicking on the link below.
I’ve listened to a lot of anodyne graduation speeches in myu career (this one is really not the official graduation address, which is always delivered by a member of our faculty—today colleague and law professor Tom Ginsburg). It’s the “Class Day” address. Read it by clicking the headline below, and it’s also been archived here. After reading it, I’m guessing that the University invited Stephens to talk on Class Day precisely so he could impart the lesson below to the departing students. If they wanted to cater to the students, they’d probably invite someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Stephens begins by addressing his critics directly, and then praising two major figures at the University (I don’t know if there was a walkout):
To those of you who are protesting or planning a walkout, I thank you for not seriously disrupting my speech. And though I’m sorry you won’t hear me out, I completely respect your right to protest any speaker you dislike, including me, so long as you honor the Chicago Principles. It is one of the core liberties that all of us have a responsibility to uphold, protect and honor.
To those of you who choose to stay, I thank you for honoring another Chicago principle, one that was dear to my dear friend, Bob Zimmer: Namely, that a serious education is impossible except in an environment of unfettered intellectual challenge — an environment that, in turn, isn’t possible without the opportunity to encounter people and entertain views with whom and with which you might profoundly disagree.To John Boyer, who welcomed me to Chicago in 1991 when I was a nervous 17-year-old freshman, I want to salute you for everything you’ve done to make the college so much better, while preserving what always made it great: the conviction that to think clearly, we must be able to speak freely; that to disagree intelligently, we must first understand the views of our opponents profoundly; that to change people’s minds, we must be open to the possibility that our minds might be changed. All of this asks us to listen charitably, argue candidly, consider deeply, examine and re-examine everything, above all our own deeply held convictions — and, unlike at so many other universities, to respond to ideas we reject with more and better speech, not heckling or censorship.
And the ending (but do read the whole thing):
. . . . You are about to go out into the real world, as real adults, with a real hand in shaping the conditions of our common life. Many of you will soon join and eventually lead great institutions, and a few of you will create significant businesses, NGOs, schools and other institutions of your own. I’m guessing not many of you are thinking: “I want to make them just like the University of Chicago,” at least as far as subzero temperatures, midterms that begin the third week and the food at Valois are concerned. [JAC: Valois is a downscale cafeteria in Hyde Park, known for its homey and inexpensive food. Barack Obama would occasionally eat there, even as President.]
But I hope you can at least say this: that, at Chicago, you learned that institutions become and remain great not because of the weight of their traditions or the perception of their prestige, but because they are places where the sharpest thinking is given the freest rein, and where strong arguments may meet stronger ones, and where “error of opinion may be tolerated” because “reason is left free to combat it” and where joy and delight are generally found at the point of contact — mental or otherwise.
If you can say this, then Chicago will have served you well. And if you can bring this mind-set and this spirit to the places you will soon make your own, then you will have served Chicago even better.
Go forth, good luck, and thank you.
Stephens delivering the talk:
Click “read more” to see the “coalition statement on Bret Stephens’ Class Day Invitation“: