May 20, 2014
Former Smith College president Ruth J. Simmons has gone to bat for free speech in remarks delivered at the institution’s 136th commencement, returning Sunday to a college she led for six years before leaving in 2001 to become president of Brown University.
It was only last weekend Simmons agreed to serve as Smith’s commencement speaker, after International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde withdrew amidst student protests. . . .
Speaking from the outdoor stage Sunday, Simmons acknowledged the role protest has played in shaping the course of American history, and told stories of her own defiant nature. But the core of her talk focused on honoring and protecting the free expression of ideas on campus and beyond.
While Smith gives young women a platform to confront injustice, including human trafficking, genocide, and civil rights violations, “one’s voice grows stronger in encounters with opposing views,” said Simmons.
Simmons told of defending a speaker at Brown “whose every assertion was dangerous and deeply offensive to me on a personal level.” The speaker believed blacks were better off as slaves, she said.
Simmons drew applause when she opined that skipping the talk, as college president, would be “to choose personal comfort over a freedom whose value is so great, that the hearing of his unwelcome message could hardly be assessed at too great a cost.”
“Protecting free speech brilliantly insulates us from from being silenced for own unpopular views,” she said.
But these people don’t ever want to hold an unpopular view.