Undergraduate Commencement Remarks - May 20, 2007
Thank you Dr. Schmotter. Members of the platform party, my wife Pat and my sons, good morning and congratulations to the graduates at this commencement; and to all their family and friends. None of you who is graduating today would have made it this far without the support of family and friends, and so you all deserve to share in the special joys of this day. And it is a special day because it’s all you. You can’t do anything wrong; all you have to do is follow the person in front of you. No exams, no reports, no responsibilities. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that after all we have tried to teach you about creativity and decision-making, your last official university function comes down to just showing up. But it’s a good reason to celebrate, to have a party. And so to each of you, seize the day, enjoy the moment and all the accomplishments which have brought you here.
I’m honored to have been asked to say something to you this morning, though I was explicitly told to speak for no more than 15 minutes. I’ll try to be painlessly brief, to the point, and not entirely dull. I consider myself a representative of all members of the faculty and staff who are student advocates, who respect the individuals who are entrusted to our care, and who have dedicated their careers to “changing lives,” a phrase which now embodies all our efforts here at Western under Dr. Schmotter. We are proudly a student-centered teaching institution.
I am especially pleased to be here to join you in saying goodbye. You are leaving for the real world, and it’s still a “brave, new world,” despite the events of 9/11 and the recent tragedy of Virginia Tech. We cannot and must not forget the changed realities of our world. We suffer here the loss of classmates and the very recent loss of our faculty colleague Eric Roman; we remember and mourn. But through all of this we must move forward. We must show our determination to continue our lives so that terrorism, loss and senseless violence never dominate our spirit or our way of life.
You move on to seek your passion and your fortune. I go off to retirement after 39 years of teaching, 38 here at Western (think of it, I have been here for more than one-third of the university’s existence!). I came directly from graduate school in 1969 to teach English literature, and moved to JLA with Frank Muska in 1980, where I have remained until today teaching law to undergraduates. And it has been a great ride. I have always appreciated being here and I have loved every minute of my tenure. I have learned so much from each of you and from those students who preceded you. You have taught me the virtues of honesty and common sense. You have made me recognize the necessity, at times, of healthy disrespect. You and all of my colleagues on the faculty and in the administration have taught me the value of open dialogue. On this very point, Justice William O. Douglas of the U.S. Supreme Court has written that, “The most important aspect of freedom of speech is freedom to learn. All education is a continuous dialogue — questions and answers that pursue every problem on the horizon. That is the essence of academic freedom.” We have shared that endeavor and engaged in continuous dialogue inside and outside of the classroom. It hasn’t been a process of my distributing cubic zirconia of wisdom, but a collaborative journey toward Hegelian truth. You have taught me not to take myself or the world too seriously; and you have reminded me of the saving significance of a sense of humor. I am truly grateful to all of you.
It’s bittersweet for you and for me to leave Western. Whether you are conscious of it or not, we are all a part of this institution. Although we move on, it remains a part of us. And it gets better as time passes. It is a far better place today than it was when I first came, and I am sure that it will continue to be even better after we’re gone. You can be proud of your WestConn degree. You have worked hard for it and it gives you well-deserved bragging rights. You are off to do great things. I know this because it has been proven from past experiences. Students who once sat in these very seats have gone on to success in teaching, in nursing, in business, art, science; as parents, as citizens and perhaps most importantly as GOOD people. Students from Western succeed!! It’s true and I can cite from my own knowledge numerous examples of graduates who have achieved in the professions (at Harvard and Columbia law), in government and state service (in the FBI), and in all forms of creative activity. Remember that the only limit on your potential is your own vision. Expand that vision, follow your passion, and be careful to reject a cheap cynicism so that you begin your inquiry with a serious earnestness. Withhold disbelief at the point of departure and judge from a breadth of alternatives. In forming your convictions, ponder the advice of others but in the end make them personal!
The message today is simple. We are proud of you; we are proud of what you have done and of what you will do. We on the faculty and staff take no small pleasure in seeing you develop and mature academically and personally. You are our friends, our comrades. We want you to remember us; to know that we are here for you even after today’s ceremony. We want you to come back and to share with us your successes and yes, even your failures. And you will have failures; it’s part of the plan. But don’t despair, because in most cases your failures will be brief, and you will get through them and become stronger.
While you were here, you were especially important to us, because the faculty and the administration exist only for students. Not for publication, or grants, or other notoriety. We don’t have any legitimate claim to fame without you. Because of that it is important that we always think “students first” as we make decisions about the running of the school in the next years. We are first and foremost a teaching institution, not a research center where classes are taught in mega sections by graduate assistants. Here you have the opportunity to work directly with experienced, engaged faculty who are approachable and who know you well enough to write letters of recommendation on your behalf, who want you to outstrip them in your accomplishments. To encourage you to do all this, we must give up our traditional “in loco parentis” mentality, our dated paternalism, to allow you to grow. We must remember the importance of discretion in cases of student discipline and arrest; the need for flexibility in course scheduling and in curriculum requirements. Because we are a small school we can be user friendly; we can make exceptions to rules and individualize. We can’t rest on our wilting laurels. We must continue to respect you and to consult with you as adults. We must listen to you when you speak either singly or collectively through your SGA representatives. It is only then that we will merit your respect for us.
We want you to go forward, to find new adventures and achievements under the command that you do well and do good, that you leave some positive mark on the world to make it a better place, and at the same time that you succeed in whatever you set out to do. We have left you the world in pretty bad shape. I’m sorry for that, but I have confidence that you can do something about it; that you can find medical advances and moral standards to guide you through the next century, hopefully toward some measure of global peace and humanitarian concern for others.
All faculty members, as you know, have their own special interests, and all of us now face a consistent and overwhelming expansion of knowledge. It seems that we are always at a turning point these days. Soon it is feared books will be obsolete. Our fragile environment is threatened by global warming, our concepts of state and nation are in flux and even notions of family, marriage and personhood are evolving. It’s a tough job just to keep up, to say nothing of envisioning and forming the future. But at the same time it is a challenge and an opportunity. Every discipline is reorganizing, as the unthinkable becomes commonplace. I need only say the word Google to symbolize the reorganization of information and the explosion of knowledge. We never heard this word before the computer revolution and now it’s a commonly used verb. (I’ll google his name to see what he’s done.)
One area, however, which remains relatively constant and which offers us a prism and a frame for balancing and resolving future conflicts is the concept of law embodied in the Constitution of the United States. It has weathered change for well over 200 years now through dramatic constitutional moments and it survives intact. It enables us to decide cases where the conflict is between right and right, not right and wrong. It provides a methodology for determining when, if ever, individual rights must yield to the greater good of society. It tells us that in times of conflict some leeway must be given to the government, but that basic principles of due process remain sacrosanct. It gives us a balance between the conflicting positions of freedom and responsibility, between liberty and license (and I will have more to say on this conflict later). Much of my teaching has centered on the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment. Read them and the Constitution again and again; I know of no other document which will serve you better. And I want to recall your attention to just one part of the document — to the First Amendment, which as first is given a preferred position. It deceptively simple — only 45 words. But it gives us five crucially important rights to protect us from unwarranted government interference. It reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
One of my heroes, Associate Justice William Brennan of the Supreme Court, author of the famous liberal decision which allowed flag burning as a form of protest, and persistent critic with Justice Thurgood Marshall of the death penalty, wrote that this First Amendment gave us our society, and the other provisions of the Bill of Rights only embellish it. He saw the First Amendment as the enabling principle which permits and protects our existence and development as individuals. It deserves its preferred position among our rights because in truth you can’t be anyone or do anything without the protection of free speech.
In the First Amendment are those rights which allow you to be you; to speak or not to speak as you wish; to worship or not, to assemble, and to petition the government. There are no orders or hierarchies among speakers. No one’s speech is more important than anyone else’s. We can control speech under certain well-defined rules and under restrictions of time, place and manner, but speech content is judged neutrally by the courts. All sides can be heard. For a myriad of other reasons, the First Amendment is vitally important to all of us. We must defend it vigorously because it gives us the freedom from censorship for which this nation was founded; it allows our democracy to flourish because through it we are educated about our political choices; it gives us the means to separate truth from falsehood; it serves as a safety valve so that we resort to language rather than revolt, to words rather than weapons, and it enables each of us to assert our individual personalities. We can speak as we wish as long as we are not obscene or violent in doing so. We can’t falsely shout fire in a crowded theatre to cause a panic, as Justice Holmes advised in the Schenck (1919) opinion. We can loudly reject ideas to which we do not subscribe. We can dress and march and criticize, we can dissent and protest, agree and disagree. The First Amendment encourages us to fashion ourselves as we are, to assert ourselves as we are, to be who we are. It is a marvelous protection. And, within those few limits mentioned earlier, we can use it as we see fit — not as others want us to. We can speak our minds. We can be gadflies, as Socrates was, and ask the questions why or why not. We can question authority. I have occasionally tried that myself here at the university, and working with the SGA we were successful in revising the Student Code of Conduct. By God, it works!
The First Amendment teaches us that “vulgar” statements are protected; that as Justice Brennan held the state cannot prohibit a statement just because it finds it offensive or distasteful. If I were seeking to shock, I might say that it gives you the right to be a pain in the ass — verbally at least, and that such statements are protected. We will defend you in your vulgar moments, and when you question Authority and challenge the Establishment. The same protection can be applied to the language of many of the great activists of history, including Gandhi for all of his pacifism; Martin Luther King for all of his rhetoric and non-violence, and many others. It doesn’t, however, give us LICENSE to obscenity, or to defamation, or to fighting words, or even to hate speech. But it does protect all other statements, even the annoying and the vulgar. As Justice William O. Douglas again wrote in dissent in the Beauhamais case, “Intemperate speech is a distinctive characteristic of man.”
The presumption in American law is to favor speech and the speaker. The Supreme Court has consistently told us this. So too with the legal protections of freedom of the press, rights of assembly and redress of grievances. We can’t jump to conclusions of illegality because we think speech might offend. We are not entitled to exercise prior restraint until the language is formed. President Schmotter did not review my speech though he might have worried that I would be inappropriate or inflammatory. My free speech rights are perfectly illustrated here because I can say what I choose. (But you all know that I had better have chosen carefully.) This protection in favor of speech gives us the security of opinion that other societies in this world lack. It is a priceless privilege. And for that reason we cannot take it for granted, just as we can’t trust others to make judgments of guilt or innocence outside the due process protections of criminal procedure. Even suspected terrorists share in this protection. The evils of Gitmo and the spectre of criminal profiling must be vigorously opposed. The Constitution is written to protect the guilty as well as the innocent. It protects for example the opinions, music reviews and editorials of the ECHO on strictly legal grounds.
That’s only a third of the argument, however. There are two other dimensions to this priceless liberty, and they raise the balancing claims from a so-called Bill of Responsibilities, and the oft neglected realization that sometimes it’s better to listen than to speak.
The First Amendment gives us the legal basis to preserve and protect the American way of life. BUT it comes with responsibilities which are especially important now and which apply directly to you. An emphasis on rights alone will lead to destructive selfishness and destructive abuse of our system. Aquinas held that peace stops when everyone seeks what is their own. So I am recommending ultimately that you see the Bill of Rights balanced by a Bill of Responsibilities. This idea has been advanced by many and it is crucially important in regard to the First Amendment where a balance between liberty and license is so important. Recognizing that with rights come responsibilities, the Freedom Foundation, along with Judith Rose and others, has proposed a formal statement. Its Preamble sets the tone: “Freedom and responsibility are mutual and inseparable; we can ensure enjoyment of the one by exercising the other. Freedom for all of us depends on responsibility by each of us. To secure and expand our liberties, therefore, we accept [these] responsibilities as individual members of society.”
The statement goes on to list several areas of active citizen involvement balancing the first 10 amendments. The second of these is especially relevant here. It proposes that we “respect the rights and beliefs of others. In a free society diversity flourishes. Courtesy and consideration toward others are measures of a civilized society.”
Our Connecticut State Constitution, a remarkable document in its own right, anticipates this expression of mutually dependent obligation. It has its own free speech provision which provides that “Every citizen may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.”
So I challenge you to make the important distinction between what you can say, and what you should say. You can seek the lowest level of speech and we will protect you in so doing. But as educated, thinking and caring citizens, as graduates of this university, it is your duty also to elevate the discourse, to use a varied and creative vocabulary, to discuss issues of cultural and political importance in language of significance, to avoid the cheap shot [to seek out Stephanopoulos or Moyers rather than Imus, to reject Britney for Rice or to choose literature over pornography …]
Use language as an instrument for clear thinking and precision; avoid phrases that are void for vagueness such as “educational TV” or “fiscal responsibility” or “judicial reform” or even my favorite, “jumbo shrimp.”
Use words to propose reasoned change in personal interaction and in political discourse. Speak out against fraud and be a whistleblower, but don’t ignite fires of hatred or bias. Appreciate the protections of the amendments and zealously guard their strict enforcement. Consider the welfare of all inhabitants of the United States, even if the issues are inconvenient or offer no easy right and wrong solution.
Finally remember that the right to speak carries with it a concomitant obligation to listen; to be open to the ideas and opinions of others and to really hear them. Speech implies the right not to speak and sometimes it is better to remain silent and to absorb the sounds that surround us. As listeners your obligation is to avoid prejudgment and to reject prior restraint of statements until they are made. You must allow ideas to come forth freely and to be tested in the marketplace of ideas. Learned Hand, famous federal judge from New York’s Second Circuit reminded us that, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women.” Hear them and good speech will survive. And so you must also be active listeners; you must be prepared to understand comments in context; to hear not only denotation but also connotation. Listening is often as important as speaking, and sometimes more important.
Go forth then with the sense that the Constitution is a guide for the future, that the Bill of Rights will provide the bridge to the next era and that it will serve as a constant in preserving the due process rights of each individual. Enjoy the protection of the First Amendment, but don’t ever take it for granted. Don’t abuse its grant, be willing to listen, and don’t for a moment sink to cynical noise when the symphony of language and ideas is ready to be written and heard.
And so we leave ...
Thank you for listening. Enjoy the day and congratulations once again.