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Baccalaureate Speaker’s Plea: Vote, Speak Out, Organize

Your civic obligation has begun, Sandra Lynch tells BU grads


People in other countries have risked their lives to achieve the freedoms Americans take for granted, and sometimes ignore. Can you handle something as simple as voting and speaking your mind to make your country better?

Sandra L. Lynch (LAW’71) laid that challenge before graduating seniors in her Baccalaureate address at Marsh Chapel Sunday, exhorting them to reject what she called the era’s prevalent cynicism. Lynch, chief judge for the U.S Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, spoke as someone who has extended her gender’s freedoms: she was the first woman jurist on her court and in several legal posts before that. She also spoke as someone who has practiced what she preached, describing how she was teargassed and cursed during protest marches for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.

“Some say they have no faith in government to address problems,” Lynch told the near-capacity crowd, which was sprinkled with scarlet-robed graduating students. “It would be reasonable for you to ask whether the fact that our democracy has not failed us in the past is any assurance at all that it will lead you to solve the problems that we face. My response is that our democratic form of government and the tools the Constitution gives you provide some of the best ways you have of addressing those problems.

“If you do not use those tools, including your right to vote, to speak, to organize in order to assure government will be honest, responsive, and relevant, the chances of your coming to solutions are considerably less,” she continued. “We give into your hands the safekeeping of our Constitution and our democracy. Please, we ask you, keep them safe and flourishing.”

Boston University Commencement 2012, Baccalaureate service Marsh Chapel

Lynch fortified her call to civic participation by quoting one of BU’s most famous graduates—“There is nothing in the world greater than freedom,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59)—and by citing a chapter from BU’s history. In 1967, she recalled, activist Bill Baird gave a lecture on birth control before 2,500 BU students. He had arranged beforehand to give contraceptive foam to an unwed 19-year-old student. That act violated a Massachusetts law against giving contraception to unmarried people, which Baird and the young woman wanted to challenge. Following his arrest, the court on which Lynch would later serve ruled the law unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit in 1972.

Baird’s student partner and her peers attending the lecture “wanted to change an unjust law and to expand the protection of individual freedoms,” Lynch said.

Lynch’s career includes numerous examples of her work for the responsive government she exhorted graduates to bring about. For example, her dissent from a court ruling that rape didn’t meet the legal definition of serious bodily harm prodded Congress to amend the law in 1996.

Her speech was part of Marsh’s regular Sunday service, a ritual that always mixes thanksgiving with prayers for the needy. Robert Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel, acknowledged the service’s joyful celebration of graduates and its mourning the deaths of four BU students this semester, three in a New Zealand van accident and one in an Allston shooting. Quoting scripture, Hill said, “We have learned to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.”

Later on Sunday, Lynch, one of five 2012 honorary degree recipients, was given an honorary Doctor of Laws at the University’s 139th Commencement.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

4 Comments on Baccalaureate Speaker’s Plea: Vote, Speak Out, Organize

  • "Democracy" is nothing but mob rule on 05.21.2012 at 6:25 am

    I agree our the “republican” form of government as guaranteed by our constitution gives us the tools we need to ensure individual rights. We must never loos sight of the fact that democracy per se is nothing but mob rule. We must read remember too that mob rule is not guaranteed by the US constitution and thus that using these two words in the same speech is simply wrong.

    A basic understanding of the constitution and a strong belief in liberty is what has allowed numerous individuals to stand up against misguided mobs throughout US history. The people that changed the course of US history were only able to do so because our constitution and republican form of government gave them the tools to stand up to the majority at the time which in each instance cited was opposed to protecting the rights of the individual but in the end had its hand forced by the rule of law.

    The founders crafted a document that allows us to fend of the democratically elected mob but only if we recognize that our rights are natural rights that come from our creator and that these rights can never be taken away by majority rule.

    • Abram on 05.21.2012 at 10:23 am

      “Democratically elected mob”? Is this the U.S. House? It sounds like your comment is a an invective against government, not against democracy, which makes your libertarian critique “simply wrong.”
      Republicanism entails the possibility that an electoral system can select those who will act in the public interest, doing the best for the most while never violating *minority* (including individual) rights. When they fail, it is “the mob,” the everyday people you dismiss, who set them aright through organizing, from populist overturning of Gilded Age excesses, to the CIvil Rights era struggles. The courts help but the people are still what make democratic republicanism what it is. *This* is Dr. Lynch’s point; I’m afraid you missed it.

  • "Democracy" is nothing but mob rule on 05.24.2012 at 7:13 am

    Nonsense, mobs of people were also responsible for the lynchings in the south and witch trials in the north. Without laws we have unchecked mob rule. Have you not read “The Lord of the Flies”? While an act of civil disobedience such as that committed by Rosa Parks can send a message it is only the protections her voice is afforded under the US constitution through the bill of rights that ensures her minority opinion ever has the chance to influence the thoughts of the majority. It is sad really but I am afraid Dr. Lynch misses the point. She is not alone; as her way of thinking has become the dogma of academia in recent years. If the US has decayed to the point where mobs taking to the streets is the best approach to protecting liberty our professors can come up with then it is they who have failed us and our nation.

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