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Freedom of speech for me, not for those I oppose

Published on -5/25/2014, 4:37 PM

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Campus collisions about commencement speakers. Over-the-top public reaction to celebrity shockers. And genuine fear of physical reprisals over controversial issues.

Clearly, we're a nation vigorously exercising our lungs as well as our rights.

Vigorous give-and-take in the "marketplace of ideas" is part and parcel of the First Amendment. The amendment's 45 words protect our right to speak out, but certainly don't mandate politeness in public comment or shelter those in that marketplace from less than full-throttle debate in the hope of changing minds or winning elections.

The U.S. Supreme Court through the years has reaffirmed our right to speak out even when it brings pain to others -- at military funerals or by allowing Nazi-wannabes to march through a predominately Jewish neighborhood near Chicago.

But we can go from "rights to wrong" -- by preventing speakers from being heard simply because we oppose their views. By threatening harm rather than challenging ideas. And by trying to extinguish voices in place of speaking out ourselves.

William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, used his commencement speech at Haverford College just days ago to criticize a small group of students and professors who campaigned against the original speaker, Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California-Berkeley. The critics attacked Birgeneau for his 2011 decisions in an incident involving police and student demonstrators.

Vocal protests and the threat of more led former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to cancel her commencement speech at Rutgers University. International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde withdrew as speaker at Smith College's graduation ceremonies. Brandeis University pulled back an invitation -- along with the offer of honorary degree -- after opposition arose to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Muslim women's advocate who has made comments critical of Islam.

If nowhere else in our society, universities should be places where differences of opinion and opposing views are aired and discussed, not shunned or victim to political correctness and closed minds. But lest we think this rampant aversion to being offended by those whose views we oppose is limited to academia, let's take a broader view.

Mozilla co-founder CEO Brendan Eich resigned some weeks ago after an orchestrated campaign by some staff and businesses to damage the company's business. Criticism erupted earlier this year about a $1,000 personal donation Eich made in 2008 to an California petition effort opposing gay marriage.

One column writer, in the online publication the Daily Beast, advanced the theory Eich invited such retaliation because he didn't just express his views, but rather urged using the "power of the state" in support of them. I believe Madison and Jefferson and others called that the democratic process -- advocating policies and laws based on one's views, in a freely conducted political campaign in which all arguments can be heard.

The Dixie Chicks' country music career hit a slump in 2003 after singer Natalie Maines slammed then-President George W. Bush during a concert in Great Britain. Critics stopped buying "Chicks" records and concert tickets -- but others made death threats.

As Maines later asked in song: "How in the world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge that they'd write me a letter saying that I better shut up and sing or my life will be over?"

Threats of over-the-top retaliation have led to legal attempts -- unsuccessful thus far -- in California and Washington state to hide the names of those who signed petitions in support of referendums opposing laws legalizing gay marriage -- advancing the theory public debate will be diminished if one side fears violence or intimidation simply for participating.

In court filings, those advocates presented multiple accounts of vandalism, threats of being "gunned down," ongoing public harassment at home or work, and even of people being fired from jobs though no political activity had taken place at work. In other words, mob over mind.

There's no ready answer -- or bright "don't cross" line -- in determining when sharp and pointed debate turns into what's colloquially called a "heckler's veto," hushing a speaker by shouting them down.

But there is value in allowing an opponent's views to be heard fully -- if only to be better prepared to counter those ideas and to ensure the right to be heard fully oneself.

Long-deferred national conversations over race, gay rights, religious diversity and more have been prompted remarks and proposals that have been uncomfortable to hear, at times even repugnant to many. Time and again, the key to countering such views -- and advancing our nation -- has been more speech, not less.

Freedom of speech means all can set up and "hawk their wares" in the marketplace of ideas. It does not empower someone to, figuratively or literally, burn down the opposition's display.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the First Amendment Center.

gpolicinski@newseum.org

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