Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The smarter way to protest college speakers

By Sally Kohn, CNN Political Commentator
updated 4:29 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
The founders and co-chairs of the Bill &amp; Melinda Gates Foundation gave the commencement address at Stanford University on June 15. "Even in dire situations, optimism can fuel innovation and lead to new tools to eliminate suffering. But if you never really see the people who are suffering, your optimism can't help them. You will never change their world," Bill Gates told students.<!-- -->
</br> The founders and co-chairs of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave the commencement address at Stanford University on June 15. "Even in dire situations, optimism can fuel innovation and lead to new tools to eliminate suffering. But if you never really see the people who are suffering, your optimism can't help them. You will never change their world," Bill Gates told students.
HIDE CAPTION
Giving grads wisdom: Bill and Melinda Gates
Shonda Rhimes
Michael Bloomberg
Sandra Bullock
Jim Carrey
Barack Obama
Joe Biden
Michelle Obama
Colin Powell
Bill Clinton
Mary Barra
Sean Combs
Elin Nordegren
Bill Nye
John Legend
William H. McRaven
Jennifer Lee
Jill Abramson
Peyton Manning
John Kerry
Howard Koh
Fareed Zakaria
Ed Helms
Janet Yellen
Thomas Perez
Susan Wojcicki
Al Gore
Antonin Scalia
Janet Napolitano
Steve Ballmer
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sally Kohn: Students protesting views of commencement speakers are well-intentioned
  • Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde canceled their appearances after outcry
  • Kohn: Don't stop speakers from coming to campus, but protest if you object to their views
  • She says students can silently show their disapproval, but don't be rude

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is a CNN political commentator, progressive activist and columnist. Follow her on Twitter @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Kudos to the rabble rousers in the Class of 2014 making waves across the country protesting the political views of commencement speakers. Your intentions are entirely in the right place, but you're going about it all wrong.

It's understandable to want to protest the views and actions of Condoleezza Rice, a leading war monger in the Bush administration who backed policies that led to so many needless American and Iraqi deaths.

There's a valid critique of how the International Monetary Fund and its leader, Christine Lagarde, actually harm poor nations with the economic conditions IMF loans impose.

And the University of California at Berkeley was arguably extremely violent in its handling of Occupy protesters under the leadership of Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.

All three leaders have canceled planned commencement addresses after protests by students at Rutgers University, Smith College and Haverford College respectively.

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

Which doesn't accomplish very much, I'm afraid. The media story -- and thus the public discussion generally -- is now about free speech and the marketplace of ideas and whether today's college students are so intolerant of different viewpoints that they try and banish them altogether.

We're discussing whether the Class of 2014 is too entitled when we should be talking about the failures of foreign policy in the Bush administration and appropriate police powers in a post-9/11 security state.

Is the Class of 2014 too entitled? Not necessarily. But you might not be good organizers.

Rice: Putin won't 'take on' the U.S.
Free speech lost at commencements
Protests cancel commencement speeches

So to those of you who haven't raised objections to commencement speakers yet, or who are getting a jump on 2015, here's some advice: Let them come.

The most objectionable speaker you can imagine with a public policy reputation you find utterly detestable? Roll out the red mortar board and gown. Allow them to come. Nay, lure them. And then protest.

Then the story will be about your message, not just your miff. And in the age of social media, that message will spread. Everyone's already futzing with their smartphones under their gowns anyway.

How can you stage an effective protest at your graduation? Here are a few ideas.

Your intentions are entirely in the right place, but you're going about it all wrong.
Sally Kohn

Spell out a message: Use masking tape to put a letter on each mortar cap, be sure to sit in the right order with your compatriots and at the right moment, send your message without saying a single word.

Alternatively, you can achieve a similar effect by writing each letter on a manila file folder, folding each up and hiding it under your gown until the right moment. A great thing about this tactic is it forces you to get your critique down to its essence, which makes your message clear and easily shared by others.

In a variation on this, students at Columbia University are planning a graduation protest placing pieces of red tape on their mortar boards to voice displeasure with the university failing to take certain steps to prevent sexual assault on campus.

Stand up and turn around: Sometimes the most powerful speech comes in the form of silence. At the start of the commencement address, stand up and turn around. Ideally make sure you're not the only one -- that there are 20 or 200 people scattered throughout the graduating class who will start popping up one by one and stand silently, back to the speaker, in quiet but powerful protest. Especially if a large number of students oppose the speaker, this is a great way to put that on display.

On the other hand, this doesn't work well with a small handful of protesters. Students at the University of Michigan organized such a protest in 2011 when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was their commencement speaker. Snyder had proposed more than $200 million in higher education budget cuts. Unfortunately, though, out of 5,500 graduates, only a few dozen stood in protest.

Organize a picket: Sure it's old-fashioned, but it works: A few dozen students and allies with picket signs voicing their disapproval with the chosen commencement speaker. It helps if you have fliers to hand out to the audience attending the commencement, so you can at least inform them of why you're protesting even if they're not going to join you.

In 2012, when George Washington University (my alma mater) gave an honorary degree to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, a group of students protested Slim's business practices, which they argue have trampled on poor people and developing nations. The protest was small, but large enough to get covered by The Washington Post.

Get creative: I'm not going to encourage anything illegal or even questionably immoral, but I will say that from streaking to well-timed releases of doves, there are plenty of ways to get attention for your protest. You're college students. You're a creative, think-outside-the-box bunch. Get some balloons and duct tape and tarantulas and do something inventive and attention getting.

We need to engage more with ideas we disagree with, that's what sharpens our own views and ideas.
Sally Kohn

Effective protests aren't about anger. They're about spectacle. Make a spectacle.

Bonus: Even the well-known folks often give boring commencement speeches, so if you can make your protest entertaining, your fellow students will be even more grateful.

Booing and heckling are so 2004: And they're rude. I don't mean to sound condescending or anything, but one of the things you learn as you grow up in your political activist life is that cathartic isn't a synonym for strategic.

In fact, they're often diametrically opposed. You might feel damn proud of yourself as you're being hauled off by campus security after screaming at some neoconservative commencement speaker but at least a third of the audience thinks you're an obnoxious jerk. And a third don't know why you were protesting and/or forgot that you even protested a second after it happened.

The third who support you? They'll support you no matter what, so try a different tactic and see if you can broaden your support and engage and inform a wider swath of the audience. Activism isn't about self-expression. It's about changing hearts and minds and engaging more and more people in the fight for change.

But you can't change those hearts and minds and get more people engaged if you aren't even heard in the first place.

Invite those different opinions onto your campus, instead of dismissing them. We need to engage more with ideas we disagree with, that's what sharpens our own views and ideas. And if you do disagree, if you want to protest and do so visibly, make it count.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:24 PM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT