Getting paid to speak is not free speech

I have to completely agree with Adam Weinstein’s defense of protesting commencement speakers. There is altogether too much apathy on campus, and when students stir themselves to complain about what rat-buggering overpaid scumbag is getting a big pot of money to lecture them before they’re allowed to leave the university, I’m happy for them. It’s about time. And that’s true even if the speaker is someone I agree with. It would be true even if it were me — I’m always overjoyed to see protesters at my talks.

…being denied a chance to speak at a graduation ceremony is not an infringement on your free speech. Free speech might entail an invitation to speak to a voluntary audience and then have alternative viewpoints offered by other speakers, and then perhaps engage in a dialogue over those ideas. This is not how commencement speeches work. If a commencement address is free speech, then so is a seven-hour harangue by Fidel Castro to Cuban citizens who are too scared to get up and leave the auditorium to pee.

A commencement address is the opposite of free. It is paid speech. Paid speech that, just like the honorary degree that accompanies it, associates the recipient with the granting institution as if by royal decree. It’s entirely legitimate for faculty and students, who are already associated with the institution by their works and their merits, to dispute whether an honoree is also worthy of that association.

Lest you doubt that all of the power is in the hands of the speakers and not the listeners, consider how much they make to deliver a shitty speech:

Commencement fees range from a couple of thousand dollars to over $100,000. Katie Couric received an astonishing $110,000 to deliver the commencement address at the University of Oklahoma in 2006. Rudy Giuliani, a year earlier, charged $75,000 to speak at High Point University. Giuliani reputedly now gets about $100,000 plus a private jet for a speech. In 2007 Senator John Edwards received $55,000 for a speech at the University of California at Davis. The rates have probably increased significantly with inflation in recent years.

Really, is bringing in Katie Couric to cheerfully chirp a bunch of happy platitudes really worth 5 figures? The article talks quite a bit about Condoleezza Rice who backed down from an opportunity to speak at Rutgers after the students spoke out in horror. Is that wrong? I don’t think so. Instead of being honored, the gang of malicious liars from the Bush years ought to be in jail.


  1. lesherb says

    From where does the fee come? Tuition is high enough. I’d be extremely upset if my hard earned money was being used to line the pockets of a commencement speaker. I’d feel the same if the donation to my alma mater was wasted this way.

  2. says

    When I first heard of the opposition to commencement speakers, one of the responses I read was along the lines of “if we protest speakers bc of their views or controversial positions, that won’t leave anyone to speak”.
    To which I say “why do colleges need commencement speakers in the first place?”

  3. fmitchell says

    Katie Couric made more for one university speech than I’ve ever made in a year with my university degree.

    Personally I think commencement ceremonies are a waste of time, but I suppose parents who shelled out so much over four years at least deserve a show at the end.

  4. says

    How did that happen? Isn’t the honour enough? But no, we have to pay you more than most people earn in a couple of years (and about as much as many of the students in the audience now owe in student loans) *and* honour you *and* give you a platform to speak? Surely it wasn’t always that way? Is it that way in other countries?

  5. echidna says

    I just went to a graduation ceremony last week (we don’t call them commencement) at one of the top universities in Australia (in the top 100 worldwide). The quite entertaining speech was given by one of the local professors – so no, it’s not like the US everywhere.

  6. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says

    My graduation speaker was John Sununu, governor of New Hampshire.

    Those of us who disagreed with his stance on women’s rights stood and turned our backs on him. About 3/4 of the undergrads did this. No one graduating from the law school did.

    His ‘honorarium’ was gas money and dinner at the school cafeteria. Which sounds about right.

  7. Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened says

    I had Martin Rees speak at my graduation. He basically praised science a lot and then went on at length about how sad it was that the shackles of religious superstition caused some people to remain in wilfull ignorance, before telling us that we were the future. It was good :)

  8. jamessweet says

    I saw the headline to the original article, but did not make time to read it — so I may be commenting in ignorance. In any case, my quick take on it is that the increase in heckling of commencement speakers is troubling, but it is a symptom rather than the problem — and in fact, if we had the problem without the symptom, that would be even *more* troubling. We do seem to live in a particularly polarized time in this country (every generation apparently thinks that, but there is data to suggest that it’s actually true this time around), and finding a commencement speaker that doesn’t enrage half the student body is getting harder.

    If students were too cowed to speak out, that would be even more disturbing, though. So let’s not attack the symptom.

  9. Moggie says

    $100k for a speech? Isn’t that above the median annual salary for a full professor? How about they use that money for something which will provide lasting value for the students?

  10. says

    How about they use that money for something which will provide lasting value for the students?

    I don’t even remember if anyone gave a speech at my commencement.


    How about they use that money for something which will provide any value for the students?

    Maybe a nice buffet, and a cheque for $50 each to buy themselves something nice.

  11. ernezabet says

    Years ago at my niece’s, Jeb Bush. Lots of booing!
    How about a lotter instead; pay off a few kids school loans.

  12. microraptor says

    What’s the point of hiring a commencement speaker who’s famous but completely unrelated to the university or anything that happens there?

  13. Bernard Bumner says

    I feel very naive, because I always assumed that people accepted these honours freely (possible only receiving expenses or in kind benefits to lalow them to attend).

    Speaker fees paid to rich politicians and others who have accumulated great wealth through, or as a result of, public service (which is to say that they have already been paid out of the public purse) are simply obscene.

    Feel free to pay signficant fees to people who have struggled and have a meaninigful story to tell (although telephone-number figures are still unjustifiable whilst people from poor economic backgrounds are excluded from education, and University workers are impovorished by their passion for a poorly reward vocation).

    People who are massively independently wealthy should be pleased enough simply to receive the honour.

  14. unclefrogy says

    the high fees are interesting, sounds like what rock stars expect to get from a performance.
    Is the rational for the high fees in any way related to other high pay issues?
    The winners, the elites, the celebrities get huge amounts of money which is well deserved because? We have to fight for a living wage for everyone else or even a moderate increase in the minimum wage?
    The speakers have become part of the ceremony it is a right of passage that they participate in signifying the students moving from being a student to a productive member of the adult world. The fees make it seem that it is becoming some kind of command performance, for the speaker with a formal guaranteed audience and a big fee.
    uncle frogy

  15. jrfdeux, mode d'emploi says

    I don’t think we have commencement in Canada, at least not when I was an undergrad. We do take convocation seriously, but the beginning of our uni days is marked with lining up to buy overpriced and ridiculously heavy textbooks.

  16. says

    So, essentially what these universities are saying, is that the degrees you get at them are so worthless that anyone already successful wouldn’t accept them unless they are paid >$50,000? Even when those people don’t need to put any more effort into it than write and deliver a speech… I sure hope my university have a bit more faith in the value of their degrees.

  17. garnetstar says

    I don’t see how protests “prevent” hired speakers’ speech? If people disagree with your views or your past actions and criticize them and make known their wishes that you were not the one getting this “honor” (and cash) and make known their preference that you not speak, so what?

    I presume none of these protests involve violent actions to actually physically prevent you from appearing. So, pull yourself together and deliver what you (presumably) think. Accept that not everyone is going to agree with you, and stand up for whatever it is.

    If university boards are such fragile flowers that they can’t bear a protest, they should think more about who they invite before they do it. If they’ve invited a speaker and contracted with them, they need to stand behind their actions and not pull the invitation.

    I think I might win the worst-ever-commencement-speaker Olympics: I had to attend a Ph.D.-granting ceremony as the research adviser of the graduating student, and turned up to find that the speaker was…..Dick Cheney. This was before he’d become VP of the Republic of Haliburton and a war criminal (which I would have been interested in hearing him speak about). He was so incredibly boring that I have no memory of what he said at all: I was truly fighting for the ability to stay awake every second.

  18. Hairhead, whose head is entirely filled with Too Much Stuff says

    ” . . . rat-buggering, overpaid scumbags . . . ” is going in my insult queue. Excellent!

  19. hillaryrettig says

    some of the best modern speeches are commencement addresses, and i suppose you have to pay for the good speakers.

    students, parents, etc. seem to appreciate the pomp and circumstance of a commencement speech.

    the problem is having war criminals, exploiters, and fat cat corporatist friends of the trustees give the speechs.

    below, some great commencement addresses:

    David Foster Wallace, This is Water

    Joss Wheden (I was there for this one, and he bashes Bill Cosby for giving a crappy speech at his graduation!)

    Neil Gaiman, Make Good Art

  20. Zeppelin says

    We don’t do graduation speeches here.

    Then again our universities are also free.

  21. says

    ” I’m always overjoyed to see protesters at my talks.”

    precisely….If you actually stand by your convictions then protest (especially by those who are your wnemy) is proof that your on the rigtrack. People who are ‘offended’ by their protesters have tacitly admitted that they know they are full of shit… Taking offence is the refuge of scoundrels

  22. says

    I addressed the graduating class at my college this year and the school didn’t pay me jack. In fact, the college president told me it was an honor! Once again I have been taken advantage of because of my naïveté.

  23. Scientismist says

    An outstanding commencement address — A Small Epic Poem (Size 2 3/4 B) — given at Revelle College, UC San Diego in 1978 by Theodore Seuss Geisel, opens with a discussion of speaking fees:

    I’ve been brought here this morning at the enormous expense
    Of precisely one dollar and fifty-five cents
    — Plus 19 cents more if you add on the tip
    To the driver who drove on this hazardous trip
    From the wilds of La Jolla far, far to the south
    So that you can hear wisdom pour out of my mouth.

    Dr Seuss lived only a few miles away. Actually, he paid the University, and they named the library after him.

  24. says

    One of the stupidest and most offensive responses I’ve seen when people to object to commencement speakers is, “Don’t go to the ceremony”. The student attended that institution to get an education and graduate, and has every right to be at the ceremony. The speaker does not have that right. The student has a right not be indoctrinated or forced to listen to something or someone objectionable (e.g. war criminals from the Bush administration).

    I don’t know how others feel, but I’d rather it be like high school, with a valedictorian speech from within the graduating class. If the institution demands an outside speakers, it should be a unanimous vote of approval by the students. “Speakers” from outside with high price tags are only there for the sake of appearance and “prestige of the university”, not because they actually contribute anything or have something remarkable to say.

  25. jimoliver says

    I didn’t attend my commencement (I “commenced” to get the heck away from that Institution as quickly as possible. Commuter students don’t always have the best college experiences…), but any “honorarium” above expenses to get to the ceremony and dinner afterwards is too much. And I am sure any and all students saddled with giant student loans would agree.

    I didn’t have an issue with C. Rice speaking at Rutgers until I found out that some genius at the administration was shelling out $35K for the speech. Let her speak if the Administration insists, and let the students protest, but when the cash comes from the protester’s tuition? That’s just cruel. And the Administration expects these students to answer the phone in 5 years when they start calling for alumni donations? Just a little tone-deaf…

  26. gussnarp says

    @ernezabet – I thought “lotter” was just a Britishism. In fact, I rather like it. I think we should make it a thing.

  27. says


    We do seem to live in a particularly polarized time in this country (every generation apparently thinks that, but there is data to suggest that it’s actually true this time around), and finding a commencement speaker that doesn’t enrage half the student body is getting harder.

    Pardon *my* ignorance here, but why are commencement speakers desirable in the first place?

  28. NitricAcid says

    @15- I know that some Canadian universities/colleges have commencement ceremonies at the beginning of the term; I used to work for an outfit that rented out the church organ to King’s College in Edmonton twice a year for their ceremonies.

  29. Ichthyic says

    “why do colleges need commencement speakers in the first place?”

    I always assumed it had nothing to do with the students, and everything to do with promoting the “prestige” of the university itself. The more renowned the speaker, the more prestige, the more money alumni will donate, etc.

  30. HolyPinkUnicorn says

    @jimoliver #26:

    I didn’t attend my commencement (I “commenced” to get the heck away from that Institution as quickly as possible. Commuter students don’t always have the best college experiences…), but any “honorarium” above expenses to get to the ceremony and dinner afterwards is too much. And I am sure any and all students saddled with giant student loans would agree.

    Hear! Hear! Then again my college graduation was at held at the same place as my high school graduation so I figured that was good a reason as any not to go, and I’m not much for speeches and ceremony anyway.

    Though I think my school may have lucked out that year because it did not get some executive branch “veteran” windbag (it’s a university right outside of D.C., so it usually goes with the territory). And paying some right-winger like Rice or Giuliani–who both have more money than most graduates will even see in their lifetime–is really just an appearance fee, albeit I’m sure there are plenty who would be willing to pay to keep those two the hell away from their school.

    And if nothing else, the size of these fees that schools are willing to pay these kinds of speakers–and again, who have more than enough money to do it for free–seems only to remind these kids how incredibly unfair and unjust the world truly is.

  31. rsparrow says

    Thank you for this, PZ. A number of people I respect have come out against the protesting graduates; it’s a bit discouraging and disappointing. We send young people to college with the expectation that they’ll find their voices there and use them – but when they do just that, we turn around and tell them to sit down and shut up. (Full disclosure: I went to Smith.) Isn’t their speech free as well? Not that’s really what all this is about. I’m pretty sure most commencement speakers are there more for the prestige of the university than for the benefit of the graduates.

    People have spoken loftily about listening to opposing viewpoints. But I’m not convinced that a commencement is the right venue for that, where communication flows just one way, and speakers get more money for a twenty-minute speech than the graduates are likely to see in their first few years out in the real world.

    Though I am angry about Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s treatment by Brandeis. That’s a bit different. Again, the students had the right to protest, but I was brought up to believe that rescinding an invitation is shabby.

  32. ernezabet says

    I vote for insult. As in he/she was a lotter…
    Or give it a better definition?

  33. jpate says

    @15: Commencement refers to the ceremony at the end of university study, not the beginning. It is called that because the students are starting a new part of their life. The idea is to focus on the new beginning, not the end.

  34. Ichthyic says

    Between this story and Elliot Rodger, I’m having lots of conflicted flashbacks of my undergrad days at UCSB.

  35. says

    Somehow my non-NCAA champ state university got Sigourney Weaver of all people. It was 2003, right when everyone was waking up from the 9-11/dash to war nightmare and she gave the most depressing speech ever. Basically it was “hope you enjoyed what you studied cause there are no jobs and there won’t be for a long while”. Well screw you Ripley, I’ve used my geography degree from the day I graduated and happily look onward at many years of doing what I love. I don’t know how or why our university got her but it was a waste no matter the cost.

  36. Ichthyic says

    You know, I’d bet Sigourney Weaver would be happy you got a job in your field.

    she’s also not wrong; jobs in academic fields are indeed tough to come by, and the problem gets worse every year.

    We as a society planned in the 50s to invest in education, but evidently forgot to invest in the infrastructure needed to actually place all those skilled grads that would come as a result of that.

    it’s not the universities fault, nor the fault of the people that invested in education. It’s the fault of the people who were running things at the time who couldn’t see what the end result needed to be… that if you want to educate your populace, you need to move your models of business and infrastructure… forward.

  37. Ichthyic says

    …now, instead of trying to modernize infrastructure to fit the more educated populace, the current oligarchs instead figure that DE-educating the populace, and stopping investment in higher education, is the way to solve the problem.

    it’s stupidly scary.

  38. knowknot says

    @2 Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

    To which I say “why do colleges need commencement speakers in the first place?”

    @25 left0ver1under

    I don’t know how others feel, but I’d rather it be like high school, with a valedictorian speech from within the graduating class…

    Just me, but I honestly believe that the actual result of x years of education should be the sole pride and source of repute for an educational institution, and that the vast majority of that result should exist in the heads of those who are actually commencing, in realtime.
    So… it also seems to me that any commencement ceremony in which a meaningful, thought provoking, amusing and/or inspiring speech (or speeches, or presentations, or whatever) must be provided by anyone NOT among the ranks of those commencing is a public declaration of catastrophic failure.

  39. Erp says

    My local university has three events during the graduation weekend

    Baccalaureate with a student speaker (chosen by competition with a $1,000 prize) and an outside speaker usually but not always religious (this year a Zen Buddhist).
    Class day with its ‘final lecture’ where the speaker is always a university professor
    Commencement which is usually an outside speaker (though sometimes an inside speaker who is nationally known)

    There are no honorary degrees. The university does pay though I suspect this year’s commencement speakers (Bill and Melinda Gates) may not be demanding much if anything in terms of cash.

  40. colinday says

    Really, is bringing in Katie Couric to cheerfully chirp a bunch of happy platitudes really worth 5 figures?

    Actually, since she was paid $110,000, it was really worth 6 figures.

  41. JPS says

    The college in my town — a top-ranked small liberal arts school — does Commencement a little differently. Each year they award two, sometimes three honorary degrees. Most of the recipients have a connection with the college, and all have excelled in their fields. For each degree presentation there is a ‘citation” by a member of the faculty which introduces the recipient and describes their accomplishments, and a ‘response’ by the recipient, a short speech. Ten minutes is the specification, though often they’re longer. But occasionally the citation is longer than the response.
    I don’t believe that the awardees receive honoraria, though it’s likely that expenses are covered.

  42. Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive] says

    With regards specifically to Smith, recent years have been a true roller-coaster of commencement speakers. The past nine years have seen two members of Congress (Jane Harman and Tammy Baldwin), Gloria Steinem (the speaker I got at my graduation in ’07), Jane Lynch, Rachel Maddow, Arianna Huffington, a Madison Avenue CEO, a working scientist, and a kindergarten teacher.

    So, it’s a tad eclectic. Students being infuriated over the speaker is common, either beforehand (that CEO got greeted with scorn), or afterwards (Jane Lynch managed to step on quite a few toes in her speech, possibly unintentionally). Smith students are also quite protest-happy – when I was an undergrad I observed once that if you could walk across campus without being asked to sign 3 petitions, it was probably 2 am, the zombie apocalypse had struck, and/or there was free ice cream at Herrell’s.

    ‘Course, the objection to Lagarde was that the IMF is not exactly a neutral organization, and many students are from countries that, ah, have been on the receiving end of IMF attention, and thus might not be terribly honored by hearing Lagarde speak.

    *shrug* I’m more peeved about the hamhanded way the administration handled the protests and Lagarde pulling out as speaker (which she did – she was not disinvited) than anything.

  43. David Marjanović says

    To which I say “why do colleges need commencement speakers in the first place?”

    Exactly. At my graduation ceremonies (which are optional for the students, and cost them a fee), the dean gave a speech, and that’s it. Nobody gave a speech at the end of highschool.

  44. Menyambal says

    Heh. My high school graduations had guest speakers, picked by the senior class. We chose the former principal who had been wrongly fired by school-board politics. He had been principal for our first two years, was a good person, and was a published author as well. He came back to the school, gave a damn fine speech, and when I was handed my diploma, I stepped out of line to go shake his hand.

    That choice of speaker was free speech by us students.

  45. anbheal says

    My speaker was Carlos Fuentes, a late replacement for Lech Walesa, whom Jaruszelski wouldn’t allow to leave at the last moment. He started excoriating Reagan’s policy in Nicaragua and El Salvadort and the Caribbean basin, to wild cheers from the largely left-leaning students, but I would say about a third of their WASPy conservative parents stormed out in a huff. So I agree, these days, if you choose anybody besides someone laughably uninteresting, you’ll annoy some segment of the audience. And if the speaker doesn’t like the boos and the placards and the walk-outs, well, boo hoo. As for whether the administration should retract the offer after it has been made and accepted….well….that seems lily-livered and hypocritical as well. Should they have chosen more wisely, probably. But should they and the speaker now take the heat and follow through? IMHO, yes. At the sametime, I’m hardly scandalized for the admin dropping the speaker like a hot potato either. No, it ain’t a free speech issue. It was marketing from the get-go, and they have the right to drop a speaker just as a board can fire a CEO who says the wrong things or the NBA can shitcan Sterling. Free speech is rather beside the point.