My View: Defending free speech from campus bullies

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By Denise Dunbar

In the newsroom of my college newspaper, our adviser placed a bumper sticker on the top of our blackboard that read, “The First Amendment is absolute.” Those words, printed in black on a plain white background, stared down at us as we put out our daily paper. Our adviser adamantly, religiously believed in freedom of speech, and by extension, freedom of the press.

This was in the late 1970s, just a few years after the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. It was a great time to be in the newspaper business: Students were flocking to journalism schools, most major cities still had at least two daily papers, and — in the days before cable news and the Internet — newspapers remained hugely influential.

It was a time when the thought police had not yet taken over college campuses. Freedom of speech meant one was at liberty to be a jerk, even if that free expression insulted a person or group. Speakers of all views were generally welcomed to campuses.

It’s easy to support free speech when you agree with what’s being said. The real test is when you not only disagree with the speaker, but are offended and angered by their words. Or, as John Stuart Mill, one of the world’s great defenders of free speech, said in “On Liberty,” “Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free speech but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme,’ not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.”

Both the left and the right in the U.S. have at times engaged in suppressing free speech. The list of books that through the years have been banned from some libraries is long, and includes classics like “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Sadly, protests over the content of books seem almost quaint in today’s environment, particularly on college campuses. It’s astonishing that in less than 40 years, many of our campuses have gone from being places where free expression was viewed as sacred, to places where the statement “America is the land of opportunity” is considered a “micro-aggression.”

These students are out of control, and at some campuses have attempted to silence all speech they disagree with. At Yale there are students who can’t tolerate even the thought of possibly seeing a Halloween costume they might find offensive. At Princeton, a group is throwing a major tantrum because former President Woodrow Wilson, who implemented segregation at federal agencies, is a revered figure on campus.

At Claremont McKenna College in California, a dean was driven to resign by protesting students after sending an allegedly offensive email. Each episode is sillier than the one before.

While faculty and administrators at many schools seem to have had their spines removed as if in a game of “Operation,” there are courageous voices speaking out. Columnists on the left and right are denouncing the intolerant student mobs. Ruth Marcus in the November 11 edition of The Washington Post wrote a column entitled, “College is not for coddling” and George Will has referred to the recent batch of college protesters as “crybullies.”

The best response I’ve seen was written by students at Claremont McKenna, and published in their student newspaper in an editorial entitled “We Dissent” (http://claremontindependent.com/we-dissent/). The piece is like a beacon, full of clarity and maturity.

The First Amendment is the foundation on which all of our other freedoms rest. If it is not absolute, then that freedom is illusory at best. We all need to safeguard this foundation from those who would chip away at it. It’s time to stand up to the crybullies.

The writer is the publisher of the Alexandria Times.

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