Free Speech is For Everyone
The Denver Post
Sunday, April 22nd 2001
I’ve been personally affected by two free speech incidents that have been getting a lot of press. One occurred where I went to college, the other on the pages of this newspaper. One relates to my politics, the other to my religion. It’s fascinating to compare them, because they illustrate two competing approaches to dealing with free speech issues. One is right, the other is wrong.
A few weeks ago, the Brown University student paper ran an ad by conservative writer David Horowitz. It criticized the idea of reparations for black Americans: Horowitz listed several reasons why giving money to the descendants of slaves was not the right thing to do.
Horowitz’s views are nominally controversial, particularly on a liberal Ivy League campus. But elite universities are supposed to be places committed to free inquiry, the civilized exchange of ideas, and a dispassionate search for truth. Horowitz’s ad could have served as a starting point for a thoughtful debate on the reparation issue, the role of race in America, or any of several other important topics. Critics could have refuted the ad point by point, submitted their arguments as articles for the paper, or taken out an ad of their own. Advertising in college papers isn’t that expensive.
But Brown’s self-proclaimed defenders of the oppressed would have none of that. Instead, the “Coalition of Concerned Brown Students” stole as many copies of the paper as they could find. They then organized a forum where tenured professors argued, with a straight face, that free speech doesn’t apply to oppressors. How can we know who the oppressors are, to see who truly deserves free speech? Fortunately for those of us not blessed with superior intellect, these same professors are more than happy to tell us.
Nor was the response in the days to follow any better. Brown’s Undergraduate Council of Students passed a resolution opposing university disciplinary action against the students who stole the paper. 27 faculty composed a letter to the president accusing the university of “failing to address the racist attacks on students, faculty and staff of color”, calling for disciplinary action against the students on the paper who supported running the ad. Brown’s interim president, to her credit, published a response in support of free speech, but support from the rest of the university appears lukewarm at best. All in all, it made me embarrassed for my school.
Compare this to the controversy and response to Easter Sunday’s “B.C.” comic strip. Johnny Hart, an evangelical Christian and BC’s creator, chose to devote his strip to sharing his faith by showing a menorah, a sacred Jewish symbol, slowly being replaced by a cross as the last words of Jesus are recited. Not surprisingly, Jews everywhere were outraged.
As a Jew myself, I found Hart’s strip appalling, but hardly surprising. After all, Hart has publicly stated that people like me who don’t share his views will burn in Hell after we die. I believe he has a right to express that view, and as a member of the ACLU I am committed to defending that right. Although personally I have to wonder: what is Christ doing in a comic strip called “B.C.”?
But leaving my personal feelings aside, it’s worth noting that the response of groups like the Jewish Defense League has been nothing like what happened at Brown. No one in the JDL has called for the destruction of property, the theft of papers containing the comic, or the revocation of Hart’s right to express his views as a member of the “oppressor class”. Instead, the JDL asked for papers to remove BC from their comics page, to kill the strip for a week in protest, and/or to publish statements from authors who disagree. Statements like this one.
The JDL’s statement on this issue can be read at www.jdl.org ; Hart’s reply at www.creators.com. This is the right way to handle a free speech issue: with constructive, positive action and still more speech. I hope that this incident prompts people of good will everywhere to see that their commitment to free speech should include speech they find offensive, no matter where it comes from and no matter whom it upsets. Anything else is simply unprincipled.
Barry Fagin is the Senior Fellow in Technology Policy at the Independence Institute, and a recipient of the National Civil Liberties Award from the ACLU. He is a
member of Temple Shalom in Colorado Springs.