The cost of free speech

Students used to want it; now they try to deny it to others

American college students in the 1960s challenged their institutions to stretch their tolerance for free speech.


Today, those institutions – populated with some of those former free-speech champions – have become increasingly intolerant of free speech.

This page has occasionally reported on politically correct “speech codes” and other unconstitutional actions by college administrators who have attempted to silence speech they disagree with. In Valdosta a few years ago, a then-college president actually had a student expelled for speaking out against planned parking garages there.

And this week, at Brown University in Providence, R.I., a group of student hecklers, in a coordinated assault on free speech, prevented the New York Police commissioner from speaking at an event and, therefore, from also taking questions from the audience.

They may be proud of themselves today for making a statement against that city’s controversial “stop and frisk” crime reduction program. But they chose to make that statement in such a way as to prevent someone else from making his own statements.

Ironically, they didn’t make the police commissioner or his department’s actions look bad; they made themselves look awful.

Yes, you have free speech. But there’s a cost to it: You must respect others’ right to it.

“Many students and other community members who strongly oppose policies and initiatives of the New York City Police Department were prepared to present their perspectives and arguments to Commissioner (Raymond) Kelly,” Brown University President Christina H. Paxson later said in a statement. “Not only was Commissioner Kelly denied the right to speak, members of our community were denied their right to challenge him.”

Even the school’s student newspaper scolded the hecklers.

“Kelly should be given a platform to speak, and students who oppose him should be given the opportunity to ask questions and present counter-arguments,” the student paper said. “... (W)e are certain that students who challenge Kelly on factual grounds will meet greater success than those who focus on trying to keep the event from taking place at all.”

America is a nation of ideas. To stifle the transmission of them is to cut off the country’s blood flow.

Perversely, those students only impoverished themselves intellectually by refusing to let the speech take place. And they took everyone around them down with them, which they had no right to do.

Protests are a great American tradition. But the new scheme of coordinated heckling to shout down speakers who’ve been invited to speak? That’s about as un-American as you can get.

This is a real black eye for American education in general and for Brown in particular.

Rather than have unconstitutional speech codes that try to outlaw certain kinds of speech, we’d encourage our friends in higher education to adopt and enforce strict guidelines to protect speech. Any student who attempts to prevent free speech, particularly where an invited guest or dignitary is involved, should be suspended or expelled.

Students once protested in order to safeguard free speech; now they protest to prevent speech they disagree with.

Their colleges and universities need to be better than that. And they need to give such students a lesson in the First Amendment, applied.



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