Bob Kerrey (copy)

Bob Kerrey

We live in an age when raw politics encroaches on an ever-growing portion of our lives. Occasions that should allow people to join together in fellowship too often are marred by political posturing and ideological battling. Our nation is poorer for this incessant rancor and division.

Nebraskans have just seen a troubling illustration of the problem, as the state Republican Party successfully blocked Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator, from speaking at a May 18 commencement at Creighton University.

The party needlessly pulled Creighton and the upcoming commencement into the middle of ugly partisan politics by claiming that Kerrey shouldn’t be allowed to deliver a commencement address at Creighton, a Jesuit institution. Kerrey supports the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, and therefore Creighton should bolt the door to any public pronouncements by him at a Creighton commencement, argued the state GOP’s executive director, Ryan Hamilton.

The abortion issue involves a stark clash of deeply held values among Americans, to be sure. But it’s highly doubtful Kerrey would have focused on abortion in his commencement remarks.

That didn’t stop the state GOP, however, from turning what should have been a positive occasion into a needless political fight and a difficult public situation for Creighton and its president, the Rev. Daniel Hendrickson. It’s for Creighton leaders, not busybody partisan outsiders, to decide who is an appropriate speaker for commencement. Creighton made that decision, and it should have been respected. Instead, the GOP said its judgment should supersede that of the university, and it was willing to pressure Creighton about its decision.

In the wake of this situation, Kerrey wrote Creighton to say he decided not to speak at the commencement. The event, he rightly noted, “should be a moment of celebration and not disrupted by politics.” In so doing, Kerrey was commendably mindful of Creighton and Hendrickson. He showed them respect.

Our society should beware of pulling every aspect of our lives into never-ending, angry political warring — and beware, too, of casually branding individuals as beyond the pale for their political beliefs. University campuses need to be citadels of freedom of thought and an appreciation for free speech.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln faced this issue in 2017 during when a conservative undergraduate student recruiting for an activist organization was hectored for her political views. NU has subsequently developed a system-wide policy to promote the open exchange of ideas. “We expect students, faculty and staff to engage respectfully with each other, especially when we disagree, ” UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green has written.

It’s troubling to see examples where a considerable number of campuses disregard the need for freedom of thought. “Anti-fascist” protesters shut down an event at the University of California, Los Angeles that focused on — ironically — civil discourse. Student protesters have heckled conservative speakers at campuses including the University of Connecticut, the University of Michigan and Lewis & Clark College in Oregon. On the other hand, Liberty University, one of the nation’s high-profile conservative campuses, received a poor ranking on free speech this year by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The University of Chicago has issued a landmark statement that laudably champions free thought. Because the university “is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters,” the statement says, “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive.”

It’s ironic that Kerrey would be branded as an out-of-bounds choice as a speaker, given that he has long stood out for going his own way in regard to politics and policies. He doesn’t follow the wearisome herd mentality that characterizes partisan politics. What an opportunity it would have been for Creighton students to hear an independent thinker like that, at a time when it’s so important that freedom of thought and expression be stoutly defended on our nation’s campuses.

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