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SPOTLIGHT
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In defense of speech you hate

Published on -3/15/2013, 1:17 PM

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Michael Vick was all set to do a book tour to promote himself as a new and improved role model when things got ugly.

"Despite warnings of planned protests, Vick had hoped to continue with the appearances as planned, bringing his story of redemption and second chance to major markets," his publisher, aptly named Worthy Publishing, said in a statement. "However, once the reported protests escalated into threats of violence against the retailers, Worthy Publishing, Vick and his family decided to cancel the events."

In case you've managed to miss this thoroughly unattractive story, Vick is the former dog-torturer who was hoping to sell copies of his new autobiography, "Finally Free," which tells the story of his career in football, as well as his career as a dog-fighting sadist, which culminated in a 2007 guilty plea and 18 months in prison.

I don't pretend to be neutral or unbiased when it comes to scum like Michael Vick. I'm a dog lover. My three canine children, Judy, Molly and Irving Estrich, have more decency in one paw than Vick has ever had.

"Michael Vick has millions of fans and has countless letters from teachers thanking him for inspiring students to make positive change," his spokesman, Chris Shigas, insisted. "It is disturbing that a few extremists would threaten Vick's family and store employees."

What is wrong with people?

Have things gotten so dire in this country that people have no one to root for other than a convicted sadist? Are we "fans" so desperate for a guy who can throw that we'd settle for one who would abuse a dog for his own sick pleasure? And teachers? Thanking this self-promoting egomaniac for "inspiring students"? "Inspiring" them to do what? The kind of positive change that means you no longer behave like a barbarian?

I don't do protests very often, but I happily would have found some comfortable shoes to wear while walking back and forth (with the three Estrich children, of course) in front of any bookstore that was hosting Vick inside.

I happily would have urged shoppers to shop elsewhere. I would have been happy to write up anti-Vick flyers condemning him and exposing cruelty to animals, just as I am doing right here and as so many of us did when the dog-fighting stories first broke.

There's only one thing a guy like Vick doesn't deserve -- or rather, one thing worse than letting him tell his sorry tale to whoever has nothing better to do than listen.

He should not be muzzled by force or threat of force.

Years ago, we used to debate whether students had the right to shout down speakers with whom they disagreed, often with very good reason. My view has always been that faced with speech you hate and with speakers you deplore, you don't have to go or listen. You have every right to protest outside. But the only thing worse than the speech -- whether from people haters or dog haters -- is shutting down the speaker.

In the marketplace of ideas, the good ideas don't always win. We fight bad speech with good speech not because good will always triumph over bad, but because, in the end, suppression is even more dangerous. It's not that Vick has anything to say worth hearing; it's not that his contributions are so valuable that we should all mourn losing the right to hear him. It's that we demean ourselves, and turn the abuser into a victim, when he is forcibly silenced.

Michael Vick doesn't deserve to be a martyr for a better cause (free speech) than his own. We who condemn him didn't need to silence him. He should have had his foolish tour, and we dog lovers could have gotten out our sneakers and our megaphones and made our voices (and barks) heard.

Susan Estrich is a columnist, commentator and law and political science professor at USC.

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