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Business Casual: Speaking Freely

You’d have to look pretty hard and pretty far to find anyone who’s not a fan of the First Amendment. It provides some of our most valued protections: freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, along with the right to practice our religion and petition our government. That’s a lot of protection.

Most especially, the idea of free speech is ingrained in our hearts and minds. It is both the lens through which we view events and the filter through which we entertain ideas.

We all love freedom of expression and, to be honest, we love it more when the sentiments expressed agree with our own.

Who doesn’t flinch when hate-spouting individuals or groups take refuge in the First Amendment? Or when the Ku Klux Klan wants to “adopt” a portion of a public highway and have its name displayed as a civic benefactor along with garden clubs, scout troops and Kiwanis Clubs?

As our high school civics teachers liked to remind us, freedoms can get complicated – especially when something established as a protection seems to be used as a weapon.

Reasonable people understand and accept the yelling-“fire!”-in-a-crowded-theater restriction on free speech. That’s pretty straightforward, but not all situations are.

A couple of recent incidents on college campuses have highlighted the complexities – one at University of California Berkeley and one at Middlebury College in Vermont.

At Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement in the ’60s, the university cancelled a talk by former Breitbart News commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, after protests – including some violence – erupted. (No matter how you interpret free speech protection, I defy you to read his comments on pedophilia without cringing.)

At Middlebury, social scientist Charles Murray, whose writings on differences in intelligence between races are considered by many to be irresponsible, even racist, was invited to campus at the behest of a student group. He was booed by the audience and unable to deliver his talk. The event was moved to another location; afterwards, as Murray and a faculty moderator left, they were rushed by the crowd. The professor had her hair pulled so forcefully that her neck was wrenched and she was taken to a hospital.

Is there any excuse for the violence that occurred? No, absolutely not. At both campuses, there is apparently reason to believe that some of the protesters were not students.

But is the free-speech issue as simple and clear-cut as condemning violence? Hardly.

A New York Times piece quoted several Middlebury students and found many of them disturbed by the events – no one spoke in favor of the violence. But some questioned the wisdom of the school’s issuing an invitation to such a controversial speaker, believing it inadvertently put the college’s stamp of approval on him and, by extension, on his views.

College campuses have long been the places where ideas are tested, refined and subjected to opposing opinions. In the ’60s and early ’70s, they were places where a great many protests and demonstrations started. Feelings were running high over the war in Vietnam and over issues of equality. Still, colleges were relatively safe places whose main purpose was to educate young people – not always a smooth process.

It was easy then and is easy now to dismiss protesting students as privileged or entitled or cocooned – too easy, I think. Yet honesty compels me to admit that my first reaction to last year’s incident at Emory University, when a group of students were upset that someone had chalked a series of Donald Trump messages throughout the campus and got a meeting with the college president, was: “Oh, come on.” He wasn’t my candidate, and I wouldn’t have wanted his name all over my yard; but it seemed more like vandalism than intimidation.

But, clearly some students felt the message was more sinister, and they got their own message out as well.

Increasingly, there is a valid question of context that comes into play in free speech debates, especially given the division within our country.

When a college invites a speaker with an unpopular point of view, no matter where on the spectrum it falls, does that simply represent an effort to allow students to hear an opinion that may differ from their own, or does the invitation itself confer a tacit approval?

Even those of us whose knees jerk in favor of free speech are having a hard time these days.

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