Phi Beta Kappa CEO gives Founder’s Day Commencement

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On Thursday, Feb. 23, Union celebrated its 222nd year as an institution. Feb. 23 also marked 200 years for the honor society of Phi Beta Kappa’s Alpha Chapter of New York at Union. Secretary and CEO of Phi Beta Kappa, Frederick Lawrence, gave the Founders Day Convocation address. Lawrence started off the address by showing the similarities between the Union and Phi Beta Kappa mottos.

The letters of Phi Beta Kappa are drawn from the Greek motto that roughly translates to “love of learning is the guide of life.” Lawrence compared this to the Union motto, which translated is: “Under the laws of Minerva, we all become brothers and sisters.” In reference to Union’s motto, Lawrence stated: “We see the heart of the founding story of Phi Beta Kappa. 500 graduates gathered at William and Mary in the heart of the American Revolution on Dec. 5, 1776, in the Raleigh tavern, which often leads to the humorous insights about the first secret society to be founded in a bar in America, but its actually far more profound than that … it seems that taverns were the very place that revolutionary ideas were born in the eighteenth century.

It was the place that people could gather for serious conversation outside the prying ears of the crowd and the church. And so its not surprising that in the Raleigh tavern they gathered, committed to what was truly a revolutionary idea. That individuals, regardless of their background, regardless of their wealth, regardless of their lineage, committed to excellence in liberal learning and to free inquiry and free expression, would find in that process, fellowship.

Become brothers and sisters through the laws of Minerva.” Phi Beta Kappa was founded to “build communities on robust free expression, but protection of a sense of community.” Lawrence refers to this as “vigorous civility.”

One story took place in December 2014, while Lawrence was president of Brandeis University. In the aftermath of the deaths of civilians Eric Garner and Michael Brown, two New York City police officers were murdered, and one student who was the leader of the Black Lives Matter movement on campus tweeted, “I have no sympathy for the families of these police officers.”

Lawrence knew this young woman well through her student leadership as well as the post-Ferguson vigil that she had organized. “She obviously did not actually hate police officers – quite the contrary. What she most likely meant to say was ‘how is it that Garner and Brown are killed, the world goes on, and when two police officers are killed, the world comes to a standstill?’” Someone from a very right-wing website found her tweet and made it go viral.

Many people said that she had no place at the university, and that she certainly should not be receiving any scholarships. Others were saying that the president should send out a statement for the sole purpose of recognizing her right to free expression. Lawrence says: “free expression, especially on a college campus, helps promote knowledge through teaching, scholarship and learning through each other for the betterment of our communities, our nation and the world.

That mission requires the most robust form of academic freedom, intellectual inquiry and free expression. So why start with the proposition that all speech, even hateful speech, is presumptively protected in order to have the broadest form of free expression protected in our society?”

However, this does not protect people from speaking freely or from being disruptive. Lawrence asked, “Where do we draw the line?” Lawrence emphasizes that there is a distinct difference between speech and conduct. He says that speech is what we protect while conduct is something we can restrict. The moral of Lawrence’s stories is that without all the facts, there is no way to tell what the actor was thinking.

Therefore, without looking at the mental state of the actor, there is no way to tell what their motive was. “If you are able to distinguish what is in the mind of the actor, we will not only be able to [differentiate] speech from conduct, but that used to express even hateful views and that which intends to threaten or intimidate to instill fear,” says Lawrence. Lawrence’s last piece of advice for the audience was to “know that your words have consequences, and all that we are permitted to say, we ought not to say.”

According to Lawrence, there are three rules to vigorous civility. These rules are, “One, you can disagree with each other without illegitamizing each other. Two, we can question each other’s opinions without questioning each others’ motives when expressing those opinions.

Three, every conversation, controversial as it may be, should begin with a robust search for common ground.” When asking President Ainlay for comments on the talk, he said: “I am thrilled that the Secretary and CEO of Phi Beta Kappa would join us for this year’s Founders Day – a year in which we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding our own chapter. Union’s is the fifth oldest chapter in the country and the first, the ‘Alpha,’ in New York. Secretary Lawrence clearly appreciated his visit to Union and the responsiveness of the audience in Memorial Chapel. His particular area of legal expertise – with a focus on free expression, hate speech and bias-related crimes – has given him a focus for leading Phi Beta Kappa and I think we saw evidence of that at the ceremony. As always, I found Founders Day to be a wonderful celebration of Union as a community.”

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