College Students' Protest Of Mike Pence Is What Free Speech Looks Like

by Morgan Brinlee
Brendon Thorne/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In a commencement address delivered Sunday at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence touted the importance of "freedom of expression and thought" and warned that free speech was under attack on college campuses across America. As Pence spoke, however, dozens of Notre Dame graduates moved to exercise the very right he was referencing by turning their backs and walking out on the vice president. But while some universities have seen protests against controversial speakers erupt into violent confrontations, recent peaceful protests against Pence on college campuses poke holes in his claim that "free speech and civility are waning on campuses across America."

As Pence stepped to the podium to address the 2017 graduating class at Notre Dame, around 150 people — some students, some family — stood up and walked out in protest of the both the Trump administration and Pence's legislative record as governor of Indiana. For students, university officials, and likely even the vice president himself, the protest was hardly a surprise. According to the South Bend Tribune, students had been planning to peacefully protest Pence since he was announced as commencement speaker.

While Pence did not directly comment on the walkout, he dedicated a portion of his speech to criticizing "safe zones" and "administration-sanctioned political correctness" as contributing to the suppression of free speech on college campuses. "Far too many campuses across America have become characterized by speech codes, safe zones, tone policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness, all of which amounts to nothing less than suppression of the freedom of speech," Pence said. He claimed Notre Dame was "a vanguard of freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas at a time, sadly, when free speech and civility are waning on campuses across America."

And indeed there was a free exchange of ideas at Notre Dame's graduation ceremony. Before Pence delivered his commencement address, valedictorian Caleb Joshua Pine used his own time at the podium to speak out against the Trump administration's "scapegoating of Muslims" and proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border.

Pence is not the only White House official the University of Notre Dame has met with protest. In 2009, a commencement address by former President Barack Obama was protested by anti-abortion activists. But Pence is, by now, no stranger to protests. A commencement speech Pence gave Saturday at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania, was also met with peaceful protestors as some students grappled with the university's decision to invite someone so closely linked to a president whose morals many conservatives have criticized.

Yet while Pence bemoaned as the suppression of freedom of expression and speech on college campuses, Notre Dame students proved that those rights are in fact alive and well on their campus.