Boston University’s outgoing president has said students who booed Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav during the school’s 2023 commencement were engaging in “cancel culture.”
In a lengthy post published to the university’s website and the first full public response from the university following criticisms over the school’s decision to choose Zaslav to speak to graduates amid the writer’s strike, Robert A. Brown, outgoing BU president, argues that the school’s students were “not picking a fight. They were attempting to implement the cancel culture that has become all too prevalent on university campuses.”
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The president acknowledged the school had received communication from students ahead of Zaslav’s appearance, in which students vocalized their dissent over the school’s choice in speaker. But Brown says the “virtually identical protest emails” ahead of commencement featured the word cancel with a hashtag attached, indicating to his office an “aim to prevent Mr. Zaslav from speaking.”
Brown went on to call the students’ responses “appallingly coarse and deliberately abusive” to Zaslav, adding that they were “entitled to attend Commencement because they were being awarded degrees that they earned from Boston University.”
“They sought to make a statement, out of passionate conviction, but in the moment, they forgot that in a liberal democracy, personal autonomy and freedom of speech come with responsibilities,” he continued. “One responsibility, particularly in an institution for which freedom of speech is the oxygen that sustains our mission, is respect for the speech rights of others. The deliberate effort to silence a speaker is at odds with this fundamental value. I am disappointed that some members of our graduating student body seem painfully unaware — or perhaps even hostile to — this idea.”
Brown added that the responses during the event, which included chants in support of the WGA, showed “insensitivity” to guests, including family members of the graduates. While he stated he believed it was a minority of “individuals behaving badly,” alleged attempts by students to prevent Zaslav from speaking “was painful and embarrassing to witness.”
He ended his op-ed by describing the WGA solidarity response as being “indicative of the divisions in our country” and efforts focused on “generating material to post on social media.”
“In our specific case 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,” he said. “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.
The student protest, which was done in solidarity with the WGA strike, carried throughout Zaslav’s 20-minute speech during the 150th commencement exercises at Nickerson Field on May 21. “We don’t want you here,” “Pay your writers” and “Shut up, Zaslav” could be heard emanating from the crowd, messages similar to the prepared chants for the picket, including some created by the school’s YDSA chapter members and school students who were inspired by BU hockey chants.
Outside the venue, a picket of around 350 marchers show support for WGA members, including those in BU’s graduate workers union and the resident assistants union, as well as IATSE, SAG-AFTRA, SEUI, IUPAT, hospitality union Boston Local 26, and Local 537 and UA Local 447, which support plumbers, pipefitters, refrigeration fitters and service technicians. The Greater Boston Labor Council, some local university professors and parents of graduates also joined the line.
In the hours before the ceremonies began, WGA shared a statement on Twitter, clarifying that the goal of the solidarity event was not to be disruptive to the graduating seniors. “The picket is in no way meant to stop students, families, or faculty from attending the graduation ceremony, or to disrupt the ceremony,” WGA East tweeted. “The tool kit provides context for the picket and ideas for silently supporting the writers strike. Thank you for the solidarity.”
After the event, WGA East told The Hollywood Reporter in a statement that, “The message from students, writers, members of other unions and of the community is very clear: Zaslav and all of the company chiefs have to negotiate an agreement that addresses the very real challenges WGA members face, that make it possible for writers — and aspiring writers — to build and sustain careers creating the content that the companies rely on for revenue and profit.“ “
Ryan Black, Boston DSA coordinating committee member and one of the picket organizers, added in a separate statement that, “Writers know that DSA stands with them nationwide, and at today’s picket we saw hundreds more do, too. Students and families understand that they share a common cause with workers on strike for their livelihoods and profession.”
THR has reached out to the WGA for comment.
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