Not that long ago, I was listening to a speech by writer David French of National Review. He spoke eloquently about how, as a culture, we seem to have lost both an individual and a corporate sense of humility about our beliefs, our philosophies, and our opinions. This decline in humility, he argues, is leading us collectively down a path where we find ourselves increasingly convinced of both our own virtue and our rivals’ corruption.
In my life I have consciously, if imperfectly, sought to live in the knowledge that nobody maintains a monopoly on absolute truth. Recognizing this, I consistently and intentionally soak in the ideas and perspectives of all comers, regardless of political or religious stripes. In doing so, I’ve listened to the likes of conservatives, liberals, libertarians, avowed communists, anarchists, and the occasional fascist loony as they espouse their views and thoughts on a variety of topics.
It is in this context, during this recognition of Free Speech Week, that I admit my dismay about the current environment and culture of vitriol surrounding what may well be our Republic’s most fundamental right: free speech.
Over the past year or so, it has been difficult to keep track of the number of incidents of free speech being suppressed at, of all places, our institutions of higher learning. University campuses should be, if nothing else, a place where all ideas — no matter how distasteful they seem — are brought forth in the spirit of open debate and rigorous examination. Nevertheless, the opposite of this has taken hold. Colleges from Berkeley to William and Mary have allowed the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech to be thwarted by whatever mob has decided they don’t wish to be offended at the moment.
In just the past year, Middlebury College has endured riots, vandalism, and outright violence from the decision to host supposedly “controversial” speakers such as Charles Murray. The University of Florida campus in Gainesville is in an uproar over the appearance of white nationalist Richard Spencer. It's had to absorb more than a half-million dollars in added security costs to protect the speakers, the protesters, and the general public.
The idea that someone’s views are so offensive that they should not even be afforded a platform on a college campus is antithetical to the ideas our Founders enshrined in the Bill of Rights. What the anti-speech groups are discovering is that if they can elevate the costs of security for an event, they can exercise what amounts to a “hecklers’ veto” over speakers with whom they disagree.
And to think that this is a problem faced only by conservative speakers is false. Just this month, protestors representing Black Lives Matter disrupted and shut down a talk by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is considered many things, but a conservative organization is not among them. In what can only be described as the height of irony, the interrupted speaker was there to present at a campus event entitled “Students and the First Amendment.”
There was a time when this type of behavior would not just be ridiculed, but would be unthinkable. No less a left-leaning director than Rob Reiner made a movie in 1995 that my wife loves called "The American President." At the end of the movie, the fictional President Andrew Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas) delivers the movie’s climactic speech from the White House podium. In it, he says:
“America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've got to want it bad, 'cause it's going to put up a fight. It's going to say, 'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”
While for the most part I would disagree with Mr. Reiner’s politics (and those of his President Shepherd), his sentiment on free speech is spot-on. And it is with a profound sense of humility that I concede that Rob Reiner had it right in his defense of free speech more than two decades ago. While many of today’s campus free speech opponents weren’t even born when the movie came out, I would humbly suggest that they check it out next time it’s on Netflix.
In 1995 I watched it on VHS. I possess enough humility to acknowledge that our times have changed. But our fundamental values as citizens in this experiment in self-government have not. They must not.
Dr. Robert McClure provides expert perspective on current issues facing our nation and his home state of Florida, the third-largest state in the nation and a policy bellwether for the country. Recently named one of the Most Influential People in Florida Politics, Dr. McClure serves as the President and CEO of The James Madison Institute, Florida’s premier free-market think tank. He is a frequent commentator on television and talk radio programs and has lectured nationally on diverse policy issues. Dr. McClure has been published numerous times at both the state and national level on topics including property rights, tax policy, health care, and education reform. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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