The debate over free speech roiling the nation’s college campuses landed squarely on the campus of Boston University during commencement ceremonies, when graduating students jeered and turned their backs on the featured speaker, entertainment executive David Zaslav.
On Wednesday, BU president Robert A. Brown denounced the demonstrators for engaging in cancel culture and acting in a “coarse and deliberately abusive” manner in an effort to silence Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros., and show support for striking Hollywood writers.
“The attempt to silence a speaker with obscene shouts is a resort to gain power, not reason, and antithetical to the mission and purposes of a university,” Brown wrote in a statement posted to BU Today, a university publication. Brown added that Zaslav, a graduate of BU’s law school, was chosen as the speaker “long before” the Writers Guild of America went on strike on May 2.
Several students, on the other hand, said Wednesday that graduates were exercising their right to free speech during the ceremonies on May 21, and took issue with the characterization that they were engaging in cancel culture. Protesters disapproved of the university giving Zaslav a platform while workers under his purview are demanding better pay, job security, and limits on the use of artificial intelligence to create content.
“Workers’ rights are being infringed on and if we sat back and let it happen and did what Brown wanted, we could end up without jobs in the future,” said Vanessa Bartlett, who was among the graduates and is looking for a job in journalism. “Showing solidarity with WGA was the only course of action for a lot of us.”
Bartlett said that individuals may have been yelling obscenities but that she was mostly aware of students chanting union-related phrases such as “pay your writers.”
The flare-up at BU was among the most recent examples of free speech clashes at colleges around the country, with some students and professors feeling they have to self-censor to avoid having their character questioned for holding controversial or unpopular views. Two of the more common flashpoints have centered on transgender rights and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Brown, in his written comments, said the commencement protests were “indicative of the divisions in our country.”
He described the protest as, “People shouting anonymously at each other, accomplishing nothing but feeling gratified for doing so, while generating material to post on social media,” adding “The shouters infringed on the rights of others — to be heard or, more simply, to celebrate a milestone for a new graduate in a ceremony not disfigured with obscenities.
“We must do better and be a place where freedom of speech and the vital instrument of lawful protest can coexist and foster every individual’s sense of belonging,” he urged the BU community
Brown, who in September announced he would be stepping down at the end of the academic year after leading BU for 17 years, said he apologized to Zaslav for the demonstrators’ conduct.
“They were attempting to implement the cancel culture that has become all too prevalent on university campuses,” Brown wrote. “The hundreds of virtually identical protest emails we received in my office in advance of commencement came with an explicit ‘cancel’ hashtag, indicating an aim to prevent Mr. Zaslav from speaking.”
BU officials did not acknowledge the protests during the ceremony, even as a plane flew over Nickerson Field with a banner that said, “David Zaslav, pay your writers.”
Some BU students aspire to work in the film and writing industries, which made the selection of Zaslav for the address even more concerning to graduates, said Dhruv Kapadia, BU’s student body president. He added that students made it known through e-mail campaigns that they wanted a different speaker in the weeks leading up to commencement.
When it became clear that administrators were unwilling to replace the speaker, campus groups including Young Democratic Socialists of America worked with outside organizations to plan a response on graduation day, said Vivian Dai, a rising senior at BU who helped organize the protests. She disputed that they amounted to “implementing cancel culture,” in part because the student protesters lack the power or position to “significantly impact their target’s professional opportunities and outcome.”
“We exercised our right to free speech at our own commencement because we felt the choice of speaker did not represent us,” Dai said. “And as a university, they should understand that actions have consequences and if they choose an anti-union speaker, there are going to be people who have visceral reactions to that.”
Jason Gordon, a spokesperson for Writers Guild of America, East, said BU’s graduating students were within their rights and shared a clear message to Zaslav: “Pay. Your. Writers.”
“That’s not cancel culture,” Gordon said in an e-mail. “It’s business advice from graduates who want wealthy corporate executives to pay and respect workers.”
Others applauded Brown’s rebuke of the protests. Ray Carney, BU professor of American and European art film and interdisciplinary American Studies, said he was deeply disturbed by the “cancel culture sentiment” of many of his peer faculty members.
“The idea that someone they disliked and disagreed with should be disinvited, prevented from speaking, or shouted down . . . it harkens back to tendencies, which still unfortunately dominate many aspects of BU academic culture in ways I have personally experienced,” Carney said in an e-mail.
“I am glad that President Brown stood up to defend free expression. It was the right and courageous thing to do. As has been said many times before, the only proper response to speech we don’t like is not less but more speech,” he added.
During the ceremony, Zaslav was showered with boos when he stood to receive an honorary degree from Brown. He received wide applause, however, when Brown described his work in preserving the stories of Holocaust survivors. Zaslav is a member of USC Shoah Foundation’s Executive Committee.
Yet throughout his speech, Zaslav had to pause as students tried to shout him down. At one point, he described a life lesson he learned from Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric Co.
“He turned to me and he said, ‘Listen, if you want to be successful, you’re going to have to figure out how to get along with everyone. And that includes difficult people,’ ” Zaslav said.
“’Some people will be looking for a fight . . . focus on people’s good qualities,’” he said.
Correspondent Ashley Soebroto contributed to this report.