Skip to Top NavigationSkip to Utility NavigationSkip to SearchSkip to Left NavigationSkip to Content
Mobile Menu

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal Graduate Commencement Speech

Good morning President Harrison, parents, friends and guests. And of course the graduate school Class of 2017. I am so honored to speak at University of Hartford's 60th Commencement  Address. For me, it is a homecoming.

Looking around campus and at the students and faculty brings back fond me1nories of when I studied here for my master's degree. For my first year, I worked in the Mayor of Springfield 's office during the day and  went to school at night. The second year, I went to the school as a full   time day student. The education I received here allowed me to serve as a lecturer at UMass Amherst and other institutions for the last 28 years.

The faculty certainly deserves special recognition. You blend your experience and teaching talents to help students reach their potential. As I have always said, when you reach your potential, your potential expands.

I applaud you for pushing students to rely on facts and listen closely to both sides of an argument. You encourage students to be curious and examine evidence while at the same time, discourage them from insulating themselves from opposing views. It is admirable and critical at a time many students and activists refuse to hear both sides of an argument. The university is not the place for the incurious!

As a graduate student, your professors expected more from your writing, presentations and papers. In turn, you had to ensure your work and arguments were backed up with facts, not opinions.

Since the beginning of this Congressional session, the House Ways and Means Committee,  of which I am the leading Democrat, has been at the heart of almost every major public policy debate about issues that directly impact our nation's economy, including: health care, tax, trade, and Social Security. My Committee colleagues on both sides of the aisle rely on facts and ensure we take time to listen to both sides of each argument. And like me, my colleagues think it is important to talk in complete sentences and give thought to something before we say  anything.   There is very little substantive thought and analysis that can be done in 140 characters or less.

Thanks to the education I received at University of Hartford and the support of its great faculty members, it taught me to think critically and prepared me to be the new Ranking Member of the Ways and Means Committee. As a child who was raised by my aunt and grandmother on Social Security Survivor Benefits, the fact that I am standing here today having accomplished as much as I have is in due part to the great education I received throughout my lifetime.

As you move forward in your careers or toward your next degree, it is imperative you keep a critical eye on facts. Because today ,ore than ever, facts should count. And not be seen as decorations to clever arguments.

Unfortunately, today facts are hazy or simply non-existent. The 24-hour news cycle creates a constant race to get news out before anyone else. And often, facts are cast aside and "infotainment" takes over-­ entertainment is more and more disguised as news. News should not be entertaining, especially in today's political environment. Opinions draw ratings and provide a ripe environment for fake news to thrive.

Merriam Webster Dictionary is headquartered in Springfield, Massachusetts. They have become the referee in this new-aged news cycle-having  to point out what words are being used  correctly  and when they simply are not. Who would have ever thought "bigly" would become part of our political vernacular?

Fake news is not based on fact, instead reflects the "only if you agree with me" mentality. This is a dangerous precedent. As we saw at Middlebury and Berkley earlier this year, the social media mob can disrupt a campus. It reflects the common misperception that you are entitled to your own set of opinions, but not your own set of facts. The university must remain the citadel of free speech and thought.

A former Clinton official recently said UC Berkley made a "grave mistake" when they originally cancelled an appearance earlier this year by a conservative commentator. These two people agree on almost nothing, but both fiercely defend the first amendment. Why? Because cancelling events like this sets the stage for a slippery slope towards dismantling the first amendment. A similar situation happened at Middlebury-student backlash in response to a conservative speaker sparked violence and other inappropriate behavior. Men and women in masks are inimical to representative democracy.

This goes to exactly what I'm talking about. Cancelling events like this lacerate the first amendment. Many students like free speech-but  only if they agree with the issue. When our founding fathers wrote the constitution, they didn't include an asterisk next to the first amendment that said "except if I don't agree with you." Students could have had an opportunity to hear a view different than their own, and use the experience to further develop and challenge their own fact based analytical thinking.

Bias news does not benefit anyone. Instead, it creates a toxic environment that breeds misinformation, anger, paranoia and stifles compromise and dialogue.

My staff knows not to even ask me if I will go on the cable TV shows because the answer is always no. It is guaranteed to be filled with insinuatory language that is more focused on finding conflict than understanding the facts. It becomes incoherent!

Experience informs our judgment. It is critical for students to engage with people with whom you don't agree. It shapes your experience and ultimately your judgment. That's how I inform myself. I read articles and publications that may not agree with my opinion. I talk to those across the aisle. I meet and listen to constituents from all walks of life. And I always leave knowing more than I did when I walked in. It 's all about broadening your scope. Democracy is supposed to be noisy.

Backlash at Berkley and Middlebury both point to how the first amendment is put at risk-those who think free speech is fine and safe until they are offended and in turn refuse to hear or even allow another opinion to have the opportunity to share their side of the story. The first amendment is the cornerstone of our constitutional system-the first amendment guarantees a second opinion.

How did we get here? Well one reason is the passage of time. I am a child of the 1960s. Younger people played a critical role in the civil­-rights movement and were focused on ending discrimination.

As time has passed and the central figures of the 1960s have aged, the younger generation and organizations that have historically focused on civil rights have readjusted their focus to economic justice. While not to belittle economic justice, unfortunately, free speech and nonpartisanship have fallen by the wayside.

How do we get back to a place where free speech is not only protected and guaranteed, but can flourish? One simple, important first step: listen. I was recently asked how I engage with younger people. The answer was easy-the same way I engage with anyone-I listen. Today, we talk too much and don't listen enough. We care more about our phones and posting information rather than listening. So much can be gained from listening-it generates thoughtful discussion, shows you care, expands your horizon, and often leads to new ideas and compromise.

And I am certainly not saying this is easy. It 's uncomfortable, but ultimately, is an important  step to protect free speech. The closing of the American mind is not helpful to growing democracy.

Columnist and Harvard Professor Cass R. Sunstein put it well in a recent Boston Herald Opinion piece. He talked about the energy that goes into protests and encouraged students to think through how their actions and protests will ultimately help people rather than looking inward at college life.

As complex as things are today, facts are more important than ever. I challenge you to expand your potential, engage with people with opposing views, and take time to examine evidence to protect facts and discourage fake news. All of these actions ultimately protect the corner stone  of  our democracy-the first amendment.

Thank you President Harrison and the entire University of Hartford community. Congratulations on behalf of the United States of America.