Free Speech vs. Ethics: Goddard College and the Cop-Killer Commencement Speaker

Next gig for the Cheshire home invaders: Commencement honors at Goddard?

Next gig for the Cheshire home invaders: Commencement honors at Goddard?

Convicted  cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal was the commencement speaker at Goddard College, in Plainfield, Vermont today, having been chosen by graduating students. He is a controversial figure, convicted in the 1981 slaying of Officer Daniel Faulkner, sentenced to death, and eventually sentenced to  life in prison without parole after a long legal battle.  Abu-Jamal’s speech was prerecorded by Prison Radio and broadcast.

Goddard is not your typical college. It is liberal/radical even by current college standards. Students design their own curriculum. It holds 20 commencement ceremonies each year so students in each degree program can have personalized graduations. Abu-Jamal, himself a political radical, received a bachelor of arts degree from the college in 1996, completing his coursework by mail. Before the killing, Mumia was a member of the Black Panthers. While imprisoned he has become a cultural icon to the radical left as an activist against institutional racism.

As you would expect, a lot of people have problems with Mumia receiving this honor. Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the officer killed by Abu-Jamal, condemned Goddard’s decision.The Vermont Troopers Association issued a statement saying that it was “ outraged that Goddard College is hosting a man who shot and killed a police officer.”  But Goddard is proud as punch that its students chose the convicted murderer. Said the acting President:

“As a reflection of Goddard’s individualized and transformational educational model, our commencements are intimate affairs where each student serves as her or his own valedictorian, and each class chooses its own speaker. Choosing Mumia as their commencement speaker, to me, shows how this newest group of Goddard graduates expresses their freedom to engage and think radically and critically in a world that often sets up barriers to do just that.”

Well, that’s one way of interpreting it. Or, we might justly conclude that the graduates of Goddard have been taught to have contempt for decency, justice, law enforcement and the legal system, and since they admire murderous criminals, might see nothing wrong with being one. Ask me if I want to hire anyone with  a Goddard degree. Go ahead. Ask.

Naturally, defenders of Mumia’s honor think it is perfectly acceptable because it embodies the principle of free speech. I’m not sure it does….not at all. Unpopular speech embodies free speech. Encouraging popular and offensive speech by someone who is not worthy of emulation embodies bad taste, dubious values and anti-social priorities. Show me that Goddard students would welcome speeches by Ted Cruz, Bill O’Reilly, Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney, and then I’ll accept that the campus is supportive of free speech.

Meanwhile, why stop with Mumia? Why not have that Isis guy who beheaded the American journalist speak at commencement, with his hood, of course? Surely that would expresses graduates’ freedom to engage and think radically and critically in a world that often sets up barriers to do just that. How about the Cheshire home invasion killers, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, who raped the family’s young girls and mother before burning their house down around them? If it’s free speech to allow the scum of the earth speak at a commencement, if someone is crazy enough to want to listen to them, let’s really go for it.

That doesn’t make it right, however. All allowing Mumia to speak at commencement shows me is that the students are exercising their rights to promote freedom of expression, and doing so in a context and manner that is less dignified, justified, respectful or reasonable than having the honor delivered by a circus performer who communicates in farts, Carrot Top, or Honey Boo Boo. It shows me that the culture created by Goddard is toxic, and that the students who graduate from there without sufficient resistance to its influence will range from useless to annoying to dangerous.

Their parents must be so proud.

Sources: Washington Post, Huffington Post, Philly

30 thoughts on “Free Speech vs. Ethics: Goddard College and the Cop-Killer Commencement Speaker

  1. Consider the worth of the parents who likely paid good (bad?) money into Goddard College’s coffers to allow their little sweethearts to attend its ivory towered realm. “Free inquiry” is often the vanguard of “free iniquity”.

  2. “Why not have that Isis guy who beheaded the American journalist speak at commencement, with his hood, of course?”

    Please don’t give Columbia any ideas.

  3. Can any employer explain to me how a Goddard degree is worth more than shit-stained toilet paper?

    It would not be as bad if Goddard invited the Westboro Baptist Church as commencement speakers.

    • Yes, when I saw fully personalize-able curricula, I thought, ok that may have some merit… in ancient Greece.

      But who the hell would hire that? Goddard may hire them.

    • A vast improvement on Rightard for-profit diploma-mills like Capella or the University of Phoenix, assuming that you ever make it (graduation rates are ~20%). At a “nursing” program of one of these diploma mills, one of their externships in psychiatry was with the Church of $cientology. Think about that one.

      Reed College works on a similar model, and we all know its most famous drop-out. New College in Sarasota is even closer to Goddard’s model, and is highly regarded. Some students need structure, and others rebel against it. The brighter ones are usually in the latter camp, and are more capable of thinking outside of the box. They actually learn more in that environment than they will ever learn at Harvard or Yale.

      I accept their explanation. Radical thought has always been of benefit to a society. I may respectfully disagree, but as Pascal put it, I will defend to the death your right to say it.

      • A vast improvement on Rightard for-profit diploma-mills like Capella or the University of Phoenix, assuming that you ever make it (graduation rates are ~20%). At a “nursing” program of one of these diploma mills, one of their externships in psychiatry was with the Church of $cientology. Think about that one.

        what makes University of Phoenix “Rightard”?

        • Never mind that: what in the post suggested that its purpose was to argue that Goddard was inferior to other lousy institutions of higher learning? Did I mention University of Phoenix? How is it relevant to the matter?

          Rationalization #22, squared.

        • It is the embodiment of Rightard ideals: Abolition of the public commons, replacing what were once first-rate state land grant colleges with crappy, for-profit Third World-class diploma mills.

          Privatize everything. Prisons, roads, schools, courts. Make government so small, it can be drowned in a bathtub — or fit inside the uterus down the street.

      • “Rightard for-profit diploma-mills “

        For profit? Because most Universities don’t try to bring in money…

        You’re an idiot and your biases consume you…are you capable of thinking outside the box?

  4. I think that you’re framing this in a way that doesn’t quite capture the intent of the students. Among certain subgroups in our culture (a few celebrities, and lots of college students) Mumia Abu-Jamal is viewed as one of, if not the, most prominent innocent people on death row. There are books, movies, web sites, etc., all proclaiming Mumia’s innocence. If one accepts the case for Mumia’s innocence, then inviting him to speak is not comparable to inviting one of the ISIS beheaders to speak. The question of whether it is ethical to invite Mumia to speak depends entirely on the question of whether Mumia is innocent or guilty.

    This is not to say that Mumia is innocent, or that people who accept the case for his innocence are blameless. Someone who venerates Mumia Abu-Jamar because they accept the case for his innocence may be guilty of ignorance and/or gullibility. That is not the same the same thing as having contempt for decency and justice.

    You might interpret it as “contempt for the legal system,” but I’m not sure that a single data point provides sufficient evidence of that. I don’t hold that Mumia is innocent, but I am quite certain that the legal system has, in fact, incarcerated innocent persons in the years since his arrest. (I would guess that you hold the same belief, because you’re an educated person capable of critical thinking.)

    In short, while I’m not defending Mumia, I think your writing here contains a serious omission: the majority of students who voted to have Mumia Abu-Jamar as their commencement speaker probably believe he is an innocent man, and as such, they do not believe they are venerating a murderer.

    • They have no basis on which to believe he is innocent. Their nation and it judicial system has designated him guilty. Honoring him is thus, as I said, their choice intentionally communicates “contempt for decency, justice, law enforcement and the legal system.”

      Nothing I wrote is inconsistent with their completely unwarranted faith in his innocence.

      • Point taken. But it sounds like what you are saying is that wanting to honor and draw attention to a man whom you fervently believe to be innocent and wanting to honor and draw attention to a man whom you believe to be a murderer is ethically the same thing. I don’t think that’s a reasonable stance.

        Are you saying that a group of people who believe, and make very clear, that the legal system made a mistake are showing “contempt…for the legal system?”

        Surely neither you nor I actually believe that the legal system has been right 100% of the time?

        If the students are wrong about Mumia’s innocence, then they are guilty of ignorance, a lack of critical thinking, and/or negligence. Those can be ethical lapses, too. Are you saying that even if Mumia is innocent they have an ethical obligation to shut up and act as if he is guilty?

        • If you can show me that the students involved know anything about the facts of the case and have independently and objectively determined that Mumia is innocent, I’ll yield the point. But they have not. What they have done is take the side of Mumia’s supporters specifically because they have contempt for the legal system. the American system, etc.

      • Ours is a legal and law-enforcement system,, that has earned its fair share of contempt.

        The inalienable right to self-defense was recognized by Blackstone. In your Commonwealth, fugitive slave Nat Turner was hanged for murder in the wake of his uprising. Did he commit murder in killing the slavers and their families, if the right to kill a tyrant is absolute? I can find no decency in the society that enslaved and then murdered him.

        By your metric, the answer is yes. I would disagree, on the ground that it is logically impossible to “murder” a tyrant. As Augustine observed, lex iniusta non est lex (Latin: An unjust law is no law at all).

        I don’t know the facts of the Mumia case, but I can envision a set of facts where he would have been morally justified in using lethal force, but still be convicted by our system. Under those circumstances, their contempt is justifiable.

        • Nat Turner was guilty of murder, and so was John Brown. That’s what martyrs do—the accept the price of breaking laws that need to be exposed, and thus focus public anger on their choice. It’s still murder, until slavery was determined to be immoral and illegal. He didn’t have the right to justify his own murderous choice. The heroine in “Machinal” by Sophie Treadwell kills her husband because society made life a nightmare for women. She fries, unrepentant. She is still a murderer.

    • Agreed entirely. And he might even BE innocent. Cicero asserted that it was “morally right to kill” tyrants, as they are “monsters … in human form [who] should be cut off from … the common body of humanity.” 3 Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis, 299 (T. Page and W. Rouse, ed., W. Miller, trans., 1921) (44 B.C.E.). Justice Douglas asked if the Establishment is “the new King George,” and whether revolution might at some point be called for. I’m actually willing to entertain that perspective, even if I state my disagreement at the outset.

      I want ideas to challenge me. Infuriate me. And as odious as I find the ideas of the Phelps clan of Westboro fame, I would not want them to be silenced. The only thought which has power is the one that dare not be spoken.

      • “The only thought which has power is the one that dare not be spoken.”
        What, pray, the hell does that mean? How are unspoken thoughts the only ones with power? Through telepathic projection? What utter nonsense.

      • I see nothing wrong with wanting to listen to Mumia at all. There are plenty of other ways that don’t involve the symbolic honor, and the issue of “silencing” him is a straw man. Nobody has invited me to speak at Goddard, and I haven’t been “silenced.” Mumia has written several books: he won’t shut up.

        Sure he “might be” innocent. O.J. might be innocent. Every prisoner in every prison in the world might be innocent. I knew you would want to point that out because you are biased against the justice system, but really, so what? From everything I’ve read, his major claim to innocence amounts to the political trope that the system is out to get him because he’s out to get the system, and the fact that he says he’s innocent. By those standards, every convicted murderer is a potential commencement speaker.

        And what makes you think the students at Goddard want to hear “ideas to challenge them. Infuriate them”? They want to hear a murderous ex-Black Panther because they are simpatico with them. If it were Bob Jones U., you would have a valid point.

        • My view is that if the murderer and war criminal Condi Rice (as a gentle reminder, you admitted that under the law as it stands, this is the correct conclusion) can speak at a commencement address (that is, as long as students want to hear her), so can a cop-killer. Fred Phelps. Reverend Al. Sarah Palin. Plenty of fruits and nuts out there.

          Everyone is a potential commencement speaker. Even you and I, Jack.

          “Murder” is a legal concept and therefore, a point of view. One could at least make the argument that he had a right to pull the trigger, given the right circumstances. Jefferson wrote that “rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.” I will withhold judgment until I become more familiar with the case–if I ever bother.

      • This reminds me of the speakers that came to campus during my college days. What’s sad is, the speaker who made the most sense, who actually sounded like he knew what he was talking about, and who had a plan that actually sounded like it would work, was G. Gordon Liddy. How scary is that?

        • I thought the most incisive comment was that of Jello Biafra: “Unless we tackle corruption, we’ll never fix anything.” (You live near a prominent university, you get to hear a lot of intriguing speakers.)

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