It’s never the wrong time to post a ringing endorsement of free speech. Here’s one:
I believe in freedom of expression with all my heart, and I also believe in being careful about that freedom when there are folk who will be incensed by that freedom. I am not sure what should be done.
As an uncompromising assertion of principle I’d put that alongside the immortal declaration, “Give me liberty or give me—well, what else you got there?”
The above words were spoken in November 2008 by the dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska. The dean was wrestling with a question that seemed huge at the time: whether to renege on a longstanding invitation to Bill Ayers to speak on campus.
Nine months earlier, when the invitation was made, Ayers was an interesting fellow—a former Weatherman turned education reformer—but not someone capable of putting an entire state on edge. But by that fall, as I wrote at the time, “he’d become Barack Obama’s unrepentant terrorist sidekick and all the proof any hysteric needed that America simply didn’t know enough about the Democratic candidate with the Muslim name to risk putting him in the White House.”
Nebraska’s hysterics were up in arms. The Republican governor of Nebraska called the invitation “an embarrassment to the University of Nebraska and the State of Nebraska.”
Ayers didn’t get to speak. He was disinvited for his own safety, the university explained.
It was a silly moment in the affairs of a red state where common sense usually prevails. I recall it now as an example of the kind of company a faction at the University of Chicago apparently would like to keep.
This faction was outraged that Corey Lewandowski, who for a while ran Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, was invited by the university’s Institute of Politics to speak off the record Wednesday afternoon. A letter of protest—which the Tribune tells us was endorsed by UofC Resists, Graduate Students United, Students Working Against Prisons, and UChicago Socialists—told the institute to “stop providing a platform to surrogates of the Trump administration.”
It argued that “nothing about a firm commitment to free expression obliges us open our doors to (much less to provide platforms for) those who incite hatred and violence against refugees, immigrants and minorities—that is, against our students, teachers, co-workers and neighbors.”
Anton Ford, a professor who helped write the letter, told the Tribune that “there are people or views that are dangerous in and of themselves” and even to debate them is “problematic.” That’s because “it is as if nothing is out of bounds.”
Let me suggest something here. It’s possible that no idea is out of bounds, least of all when spoken in a university seminar room. The alternative is conversation subjected to prior restraint, this being a pejorative so potent it’s rarely uttered even by deans and professors who sing its praises.
The U of C campus newspaper, the Maroon, came at the Lewandowski question a little differently. It protested the fact that his talk, and the subsequent Q&A would be off the record (a form of prior restraint journalism has made its peace with):
It does not make sense for the IOP to put him in a room with students and remove the most powerful check on inappropriate behavior: the ability of the press to make it known to the public. He ran an influential campaign that stretched the truth and flat-out lied countless times. We know this because he was on the record when he did so, and the media documented it. It’s also hard to justify why any fellows seminar should be off the record. During an off-the-record seminar, a fellow or a guest can do or say anything, and everyone in the room has to pretend like it never happened.
But why would anyone go hear Lewandowski talk and hope to God he says nothing “inappropriate”? The whole point of these Institute of Politics sessions, which director David Axelrod puts on weekly, is to bring in politically savvy guests who speak freely to grownups. Does the Maroon understand how petulant it sounds: If we don’t get to report it, no one should get to hear it!
At least Second Amendment champions, in the main, really seem to like guns! A good word for free speech is followed too much of the time by a fretful, but this might not be the time or place.