A strong argument for strong speech

by John Pixley


Should a college allow a parade on its campus in honor of Hitler? The young man, most likely a student, probably thought he was asking a trick question, something to stump or trap the speaker who had so authoritatively and confidently advocated free speech on college campuses.

Surely, such a heinous, obnoxious celebration wouldn’t be tolerated. He had all but sauntered up to the microphone during the Q and A period with a grin, accepting the invitation to ask any and all questions as a challenge.

“Yes.” The answer came quickly, without hesitation. This wasn’t a trick question at all. It may well have been typical, even expected, in such an audience.

The young man was clearly taken aback. It was obvious that he wasn’t expecting this answer, given so decisively. “Thanks,” he said and began to walk away.

But no doubt the clear-cut reply was a challenge.  The young man couldn’t just walk away. He quickly turned back around and asked, “Why?” issuing another challenge.

Geoffrey R. Stone is used to such challenges. That much was clear when the University of Chicago Law School professor and former law clerk to US Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan spoke two weeks ago at Pomona College’s Bridges Hall of Music. The talk, “Free Speech on Campus: A Challenge for Our Time,” came late on Friday afternoon, a jolt capping an otherwise quiet first week of the spring semester at the colleges.

“What about a parade in support of Planned Parenthood?” Mr. Stone countered. After all, he pointed out, the agency has been condemned as one that “murders the unborn,” as it provides abortions. No doubt some would find this feting most offensive and unacceptable and insist that a college should have no part in allowing it.

Or what about students staging a parade in support of gay and transgender rights? Or financial aid for undocumented students? Or ending affirmative action, with the intent that color and gender shouldn’t matter?

No doubt some students, as well as faculty and staff members, would be offended if one of these parades were held on campus. Not to mention people in town. No doubt some would feel ignored or snubbed. Some would feel threatened, even endangered.

But is feeling threatened the same as being threatened?

To Mr.  Stone, who chaired the University of Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression—whose statement has been embraced by other colleges and universities and endorsed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education as a model for faculty and student speech protection on campus—the distinction is critical. There is a very real and hugely important difference between feeling threatened and being threatened.

Of course, a college has an obligation to protect its students and personnel, to do everything it can in an effort to keep them from being harmed. Mr. Stone wouldn’t argue against that. But, in his talk that was part of the ongoing “Free Speech in a Dangerous World” lecture series, he made the point that a college isn’t obliged to protect its students from ideas and views that are different and challenging, even those that are perhaps threatening.

More than that, Mr. Stone argued that a college should not protect its students and faculty from new and challenging ideas. He maintained that, indeed, exposure to new and challenging ideas is a fundamental purpose of college.

As Mr. Stone explained, this is a relatively new concept, established in the last several hundred years. Until 200 or 300 years ago, colleges and universities were not about being exposed to and debating different, diverging ideas and concepts. They were operated by institutions such as the church and were focused on indoctrination and training in certain beliefs and world views. Exploration of other ideas, especially those that caused questioning and doubt was the last thing these institutions wanted. And they were very much only opened to a privileged few, seen as prime candidates to promulgate these certain ideas and views—certainly not to all.

But now the concept of a college as a place where a wide-open exposure to and robust exchange of new and different ideas is being questioned and, in a surprising number of cases, scaled back. It is ironic that, as Mr.  Stoned outlined, this scaling back is being initiated by students and some faculty, with demands for safe spaces, trigger warnings and the like. Locally, there was a request last year at Pitzer College for a housing option for only non-white students, and an annual reggae festival was canceled in the fall, also at Pitzer, after some claimed that it was cultural appropriation. Mr. Stone presented an alarming list of recent cases where speakers have been disinvited and students have been sanctioned for expressing controversial ideas and beliefs at universities and colleges across the nation.

Why is this happening now? Mr. Stone, author of the award-winning book on constitutional law, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, suggested a few possible reasons. One is that this is a generation of students brought up by “helicopter parents,” over-protected, if not spoiled, with the belief that everyone is a winner, deserving of an award. Another is that there is much more awareness of oppression and discrimination and of those who have been oppressed and discriminated against.

Mr.  Stone stressed that this scaling back, whatever the reasons for it happening, is a swinging back of the pendulum and is detrimental, even dangerous. He reiterated that gay and black and other minority students must be kept safe from harm, but he also emphasized that safe spaces and trigger warnings do not prepare students for life after college, “the real world,” where there are usually not safe spaces. Instead, they should be allowed to protest—and, better yet, rebut—an offensive talk that has been allowed.

Some may argue that protesting accomplishes nothing—look at those who belittled the recent women’s marches—but it is certainly more constructive than a controversial, perhaps offensive, speaker being disinvited or not allowed to speak, as has happened in recent years at various universities.

I don’t know if Mr.  Stone’s speech being scheduled on the day of President Trump’s inauguration was more than mere coincidence, but it did strike me as most appropriate. It seems to me that too many people have enclosed themselves in safe spaces, listening to and engaging only with those who are like-minded; and that people with different experiences and views—both liberal and conservative—are not talking to or even accepting each other is likely a big part of why we have ended up with “the Donald,” with his bigoted, fear-based and fearsome policies, as president.

 It’s why there was such an acrimonious, raucous scene at the recent city council discussion on a proposed ordinance promoting diversity. And, what’s more, it is why we now have “alternative facts.”    


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