8 Controversial Commencement Speakers Throughout History

Rear view of valedictorian giving a speech during college commencement ceremony.

By Scott A. Leadingham

Every spring brings a fresh crop of graduates walking across stages and jumping for joy while receiving diplomas and degrees as their excited families yell in support.

Sometimes another kind of yelling breaks out, as controversial commencement speakers … well, speak. The audience reacts, and headlines follow.

While schools are not legally required to have a graduation speaker – either an invited honoree or a high-achieving student – many of them do. Sometimes they say things that cause students and community members to react negatively. Sometimes students walk out during a speech. Sometimes graduation speakers are heavily criticized before the ceremony, causing them to be disinvited or to cancel their own appearance.

Here, we’ll highlight the “Pomp and Circumstance” of First Amendment protections for and limits on speakers at school graduations, show examples of controversial commencement speakers and discuss whether speakers’ First Amendment rights were violated.

Exploring controversial commencement speakers, speeches and ceremonies

In 2024, high-profile campus protests over the Israel-Hamas war and students’ demands of their universities led to weeks of news coverage. The protests, encampments, and, in some cases, arrests of students and faculty members happened in the weeks and days leading up to many graduation ceremonies.

The on-campus demonstrations and arrests yielded plenty of First Amendment questions. Similarly, graduations brought their own questions about whether a university can limit a student or invited commencement speaker.

The University of Southern California canceled the speech of valedictorian Asna Tabassum after a backlash to her pro-Palestine social media posts that critics derided as antisemitic and anti-Zionist. The university cited “safety concerns” in canceling her speech. Then USC canceled the keynote speech of movie director and alumnus Jon Chu after blowback to canceling Tabassum caused administrators to redesign the entire program.

The university then said it would cancel the full university-wide commencement ceremony and instead have smaller ceremonies for the separate schools and degree programs. The university-wide ceremony usually draws more than 65,000 attendees. In the ceremony for Tabassum’s engineering school, the crowd “erupted in a loud symphony of applause” when she walked across the stage, according to the Los Angeles Times.

As a private school, USC is not bound by the First Amendment, which says the government cannot limit a person's right to free speech. In the case of school commencements, a public school is considered “the government.” But a California state law extends certain free speech protections to students at private colleges in the state.

However, USC is not required to allow students or invited speakers to make speeches at a formal commencement ceremony, nor to hold a university-wide commencement ceremony at all. Public and private universities have leeway to recognize students’ achievements and graduation in many ways. Students don’t have to walk across a stage and receive a piece of paper and handshake from the school president for their degrees to be valid.

But that doesn’t mean the First Amendment has no place in commencement ceremonies.

Here are examples that show how controversial commencement speakers and students who protest them may or may not have First Amendment protections.

High school graduation prayer (1998, 1999)

High school students have First Amendment rights, though K-12 public schools have much more ability to limit student press, speeches and even clothing compared to universities. Student speakers at high school graduations can be required to submit their speeches in advance for administrators to approve.

In 1998, two California students at Oroville High School wanted to lead a sectarian prayer and give a speech proselytizing about a specific religion. The school wouldn’t allow it on the grounds it could be seen as the public school endorsing one religion over others, which the First Amendment forbids. The students sued, saying the school had violated their free speech rights, but a federal appeals court ruled in the school’s favor.

RELATED: Everything to know about prayer in school

The following year, also in California, an Amador Valley High School student wanted to give his salutatorian speech that included religious comments proselytizing to the crowd. The school’s principal wouldn’t allow the full speech with religious remarks, but the student could hand out text copies of the full speech outside the ceremony. The student sued, claiming the principal violated the First Amendment. The same federal appeals court that ruled in the prior Oroville High School case said that the principal’s censorship and accommodation to hand out the uncensored printed text was legal under the First Amendment.

City University of New York (2023)

The CUNY law school in New York City, a public school, allowed graduating student Fatima Mousa Mohammed to speak on a range of topics, including remarks that were critical of Israel. She highlighted the plight of people in Gaza, months before the war that began on Oct. 7, 2023. In one section of the speech, Mohammed said, “May we rejoice in the corners of our New York City bedroom apartments and dining tables. May it be the fuel for the fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism, and Zionism around the world.”

Though the speech drew cheers and applause, it also drew condemnation, including from the school’s board of trustees, which released a statement following blowback for her words:

“Free speech is precious, but often messy, and is vital to the foundation of higher education. Hate speech, however, should not be confused with free speech and has no place on our campuses or in our city, our state or our nation. The remarks by a student-selected speaker at the CUNY Law School graduation, unfortunately, fall into the category of hate speech as they were a public expression of hate toward people and communities based on their religion, race or political affiliation.”

RELATED: Everything to know about free speech on college campuses

It’s worth noting that on a legal level, the board’s statement isn’t entirely correct. Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. At the same time, universities have obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to ensure safe environments on campus that are free from harassment. Whether Mohammed’s words constituted hate speech could be interpreted differently by different people depending on their perspective. But the university could not punish her unless it showed that her speech actually made individual students feel unsafe while on campus. That’s a high bar to meet given that she spoke as a departing student at the end of a semester.

University of Notre Dame (2009)

The famed Catholic school in South Bend, Indiana, has a tradition of inviting U.S. presidents to speak. That tradition held up when then-President Barack Obama came to campus, sparking plenty of debate and protest. Students opposed to Obama’s pro-abortion-rights stance refused to attend and appealed to the university to disinvite him. Some even held an alternative graduation ceremony. Others put protest messages on their graduation caps, including pictures of baby footprints.

President Barack Obama waves as he arrives to deliver the commencement speech during the 2009 graduation ceremony at the University of Notre Dame.

President Barack Obama waves as he arrives to deliver the commencement speech during the 2009 graduation ceremony at the University of Notre Dame.

The speech went ahead, and Obama highlighted the subject and need for dialogue on divisive issues. As a private university, Notre Dame isn’t bound by the First Amendment, but it has long said it upholds values of free speech and expression as core parts of its educational mission. University president John Jenkins wrote in 2023:

“We recognize that sometimes the views expressed may be disagreeable to others, or even make some uncomfortable. Some of the views expressed may not accord with principles of Catholic teaching or the values of the University. Leaders of the University also have the right, for the sake of clarity, to state the institution’s principles and values, while they recognize that some members of our community may not share them and honor the right of those members to freely express their views.”

However, the free speech advocacy group FIRE rates Notre Dame as a “red light university” for restricting speech.

Johns Hopkins University (2013)

Like Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins is a private school that isn’t bound by the First Amendment, though it similarly espouses free speech ideals and encourages students to exercise their feelings through expression and protest.

Dr. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, found out firsthand how Johns Hopkins students express themselves. Carson was the invited commencement speaker in 2013 for the university where he had spent much of his career in medicine. Students circulated a petition asking that he be removed as graduation speaker after comments he made on Fox News opposing same-sex marriage that seemed to equate it with pedophilia and animal sex. He voluntarily withdrew as speaker following the backlash.

California State University, Fullerton (2016)

Journalist Maria Elena Salinas received an honorary degree and addressed the crowd for the full university and smaller College of Communication ceremonies in 2016. At the smaller ceremony, students and crowd members shouted at her to “get off the stage” and made other attempts to silence her. It came after she spoke lines in Spanish and criticized Donald Trump, then a candidate for president.

Salinas wasn’t prevented from giving her full speech or otherwise shouted off the stage, but the interruptions show one way that speakers’ First Amendment rights can be violated on public college campuses. Known as “the heckler’s veto,” yelling over a speaker and interrupting their speech is a form of violating a person’s First Amendment rights. As an invited speaker of the university, Salinas had a right to the stage and microphone for the time allotted to her. Any attempt to deny her ability to speak, including shouting and interrupting, would go against the First Amendment’s free speech protections. Someone interrupting and shouting down an invited speaker does not have the same legal protection.

Benedictine College (2024)

Harrison Butker is a celebrity for fans of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs given his key role in helping them win three Super Bowls. But the kicker kicked up controversy in his graduation speech at Benedictine College in Kansas. The school is known among Catholic-affiliated colleges as being more conservative and traditional in its policies and theological outlook. Butker’s remarks focused on the role of women as mothers and homemakers and derided LGBTQ+ Pride month.

Butker also criticized President Joe Biden’s handling of COVID while speaking out on other prominent social issues.

“Bad policies and poor leadership have negatively impacted major life issues,” he said. “Things like abortion, IVF, surrogacy, euthanasia, as well as a growing support for degenerate cultural values and media all stem from pervasiveness of disorder.”

Reporting on Butker’s comments focused mostly on what people online said after the speech, though some reporting highlighted graduating students who said they didn’t like what he said. Some people called on the Chiefs and the NFL to punish him.

As a private college, Benedictine is not bound by the First Amendment. But his speech – and the reaction to it – shows the push-and-pull of free speech when someone says something and others react both positively and negatively to it by using their own free speech. If the NFL or the Chiefs punished Butker for violating some kind of policy, they’d also be allowed to, as they are private organizations, and the First Amendment only applies to government actions.

Controversial commencement speakers and the First Amendment

Every year brings a season of controversy over commencement speakers and people who disagree with what speakers said in the past or while on stage.

A casual observer might ask “What’s the deal?” in the style of comedian Jerry Seinfeld. He might ask that himself considering he made news when some students walked out to protest his pro-Israel stance while he was speaking at Duke University’s graduation in May 2024.

Those students were engaged in an act of protest. Many others have criticized controversial commencement speakers before a speech even takes place. Others have voiced their displeasure while a speech is in progress.

While the First Amendment doesn’t always apply to every university and every speaker, depending on if it’s public or private, the high ideals of free expression in higher education often mean free speech is welcomed even in private settings.

Scott A. Leadingham is a Freedom Forum staff writer. Email

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