Student Protests at Graduation: Free Speech or Disrespect?

Student Protests at Graduation: Free Speech or Disrespect?

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Adam Hatch Bored Teachers
This article was written by Adam Hatch - UC Berkeley graduate, son of a teacher, brother of a teacher, and a teacher himself. Adam started a unique English school in Taipei, Taiwan, where kids learn to research and write articles in English. The articles are published on the first ever English newspaper written by kids in Taiwan, called the Taipei Teen Tribune.

Two great American traditions - graduation and protest - seem to be converging this year. While protesting at graduations or on college campuses is hardly new, it does seem to be common news this graduation season.

Why it’s happening

There are some unique reasons for the uptick in graduation protests. Many Americans feel that public education in the US is embattled with the current administration - a view that is hardly crazy. President Trump’s proposed budget would slash funding from the Federal Department of Education by 13.5 percent, specifically by eliminating subsidies for student loans, student debt forgiveness, and by cutting the work-study program in half. At the same time, the budget pushes more money towards “school choice” programs - code for private and charter schools that operate on a for-profit basis. With public schools feeling a squeeze nationwide, and college students and graduates in more debt than ever, it’s not hard to see why so many people are apprehensive about current trends.


Two examples stand out specifically - first, in early May, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was booed at a commencement speech at a historically African-American university. The Trump administration has waffled on support for historically black universities. This, in addition to the controversial nature of Betsy DeVos’s appointment to head the Department of Education, helps explain the frustration expressed by Bethune-Cookman University students at their commencement ceremony.


A second protest occurred at Notre Dame, with some graduating seniors walking out of their own ceremony during the commencement speech by Vice President Mike Pence. Students were reportedly protesting not only Pence and the administration he serves, but also his legacy as a governor of Indiana - also home to Notre Dame. This protest was silent - only a few hundred out of thousands walked out, to little fanfare both for and against their political statement.


Disrespectful snowflakes?

The response to student protests has been split. On one hand is the view that protesters are out of line and disrespectful of important officials who are taking time out of their busy schedules to congratulate and commend fresh college graduates. Other commentators have labeled the protesting graduates as “snowflakes” citing their lack of respect and the ease with which they are offended.

Expressing free speech?

On the other side of the debate, however, are scholars and supporters who both agree with the protestors at both Bethune-Cookman and Notre Dame and who also cite the long history of protest at universities and graduations, on both sides of the political divide. In their eyes, these protests are examples of free speech being exercised and young minds flexing their democratic instincts.

Probably will see more

With the Trump administration in increasingly hot water and students feeling financial concerns more than ever, graduation protests are likely to be common for the foreseeable future. Do you think the protesting students are out of line and need to show more respect to the officials speaking at commencements? Or do you think college graduates are right to stand up to those in power and let their frustration be known? Either way, let us know what you think in the comments below.

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