The death of free speech

  • 30 May 2017
  • NormanL
You can't say that

This is the season of commencement speakers. They appear on college campuses around the country, accepting honorary degrees in exchange for offering words of advice and encouragement to graduates. Some may even say things that are a bit out there, or even slightly (very slightly) controversial. But as Prof. Ron Rotunda reminds us, the days of truly open, honest, and sometimes fractious debate on campus -- and controversial speakers -- is fading. It was not always so:

In 1963, George Wallace was elected governor of Alabama on a segregationist platform. At his gubernatorial inaugural address, he famously said that he supported “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”He went on to serve two nonconsecutive terms (1963–1967, 1983-1987) and two consecutive terms (1971-79). In all, he was governor a little over 16 years in total, becoming the third longest serving governor in post-Constitutional U.S. history.

In 1963, the Harvard-Radcliffe Democratic Club invited Wallace to speak at the University. Harvard students then, as now, rejected George Wallace’s views, but allowed him to speak—no protests, no threats of violence. Some people argued that he should not be invited, while others said, in the words of one member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Democratic Club, “We should have a chance to see for ourselves the dancing bear.” Those who did not want to attend the speech did not do so, but they did not block the entrance of those who wanted to see for themselves.

Wallace spoke in Memorial Hall, the very building that Harvard, nearly a century earlier, had dedicated to honor its alums who fought and died for the Union during the Civil War. On October 6, 1870, at the laying of the cornerstone, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. composed a hymn for the occasion, which concluded with:

Emblem and legend may fade from the portal,
Keystone may crumble and portal may fall;
They were the builders whose work is immortal,
Crowned with the dome that is over us all.

Memorial Hall was one of the largest halls at Harvard at the time and the place was packed with students—hundreds and hundreds of students. Wallace took questions from the audience. He called on a black student, who spoke in a crisp British accent. “What country are you from,” asked Wallace. Ethiopia, the student said. “Why, you people have slavery there,” he claimed. The student, I recall, shot back, “Slavery is punishable by death in Ethiopia,” and the audience cheered.

The event ended and we all went home. No one claimed that the Wallace’s speech was a “microaggression.” No one asserted that inviting Wallace created a hostile educational environment, or that the university was not a safe place. We were all exposed to a different viewpoint, and no one listening risked the fear that they would be so enthralled as to become racists. Later in life, Wallace said he recanted his racist views and asked black Americans to forgive him.

Nothing like this would happen today. Such a person, with such views, likely wouldn't be allowed within a 100 miles of Harvard Yard, or any other campus.

But Rotunda also tells us where the refusal to hear, nevermind engage, views we find repugnant leads. He brings up the case of author Salman Rushdie, who is stil under a death sentence imposed by Iran's mullahs in 1989 for his book, "The Satanic Verses":

Over a quarter of a century after the Salman Rushdie death sentence, he is still in hiding, his Norwegian publisher was shot, his Japanese editor was murdered, and his Italian translator stabbed.

Meanwhile, Western European countries are now prosecuting their citizens for insulting Islam.

Europe may be trampling free speech. And we may shake our heads and wonder how they could have fallen so far, so fast. But we must be on guard here at home against the same problem. Early indications are that we are already on the path to silencing people and ideas we find distasteful, rather than debating them with more and better ideas.

Can prosecuting those who disagree with us be far behind?