Freedom of Speech is Great, But…
By Patrick F. Cannon
I’m an absolutist when it comes to freedom of speech. When President Trump says something stupid, I cringe just like most people, but I would never deny his right to be an idiot.
This past weekend, NFL players, in protest of the president’s calling on team owners to fire players who don’t stand respectfully for the national anthem, exercised their free speech rights by kneeling or locking arms, or both, during the anthem. The basic point was to protest against continuing bias in the way black men are treated by the police in many parts of the country. They had every right to do as they did. Instead of condemning them we should try to understand why they did it.
If urged to explain why this country is so great, many Americans would give “freedom of speech” as an example, without actually fully believing in it. Take Richard Petty, for example. For those of you who don’t know who he is, he holds the record for number of victories in stock car racing. Now retired, he heads up a team in the sport’s major series. When asked about the controversy, he commented that any member of his team that didn’t stand respectfully for the anthem would be fired. Now, I didn’t take the time to check, but I doubt Mr. Petty has many African-American employees, NASCAR (that’s the governing body of the sport) not being well known for its diversity, either in its drivers or fan base. Mr. Petty no doubt considers himself a proud American, but has he read the Bill of Rights?
On the other side of the political spectrum we have Middlebury College in the Vermont town of the same name. I’ve been there and it’s everyone’s idea of what a quaint New England town should look like. It even has a covered bridge. The college campus itself fits the image perfectly. Is bucolic the right word?
Anyway, on March 2 Charles Murray, a sociologist best known for his book The Bell Curve — which concluded, among other controversial findings, that African-Americans were, as a group, less intelligent than whites — was scheduled to speak on campus. As you can imagine, his views are not widely held, and he has often been accused of promoting eugenics, which – in its most extreme form – advocates the sterilization and even euthanasia of those deemed unfit to procreate. Adolph Hitler was a notable enthusiast, as was the Lone Eagle, Charles Lindbergh. Although largely forgotten now, forced sterilization was practiced widely in this country until very recently. Look it up; you’ll be amazed at how common it was.
A recognized campus organization had invited him. The college’s administration, while generally opposed to his ideas, had no objection, provided a discussion would follow, led by a faculty member who would be permitted to question his research and conclusions. Murray agreed to this. In the event, he was shouted down by many of the 400 students who attended. He and his interlocutor, Professor Allison Stanger, were then taken to a television studio, where the presentation actually then took place. Later, when escorting Murray to his car, Stanger was actually injured by a hostile crowd barring their way.
So, we have two events. In one, African-American athletes – widely supported by their white team mates, by the way – staged a silent protest at what they believe are injustices suffered by their race. In the other, privileged college students (Middlebury is not cheap) shout down a speaker to prevent his views being heard, a phenomenon that has become all too common at our colleges and universities, where one would expect an atmosphere that would encourage the free expression of ideas instead of their suppression.
Attempts to limit free speech are nothing new in this country. But they are always wrong.
Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon