Letter to the Editor: It’s OK to deny dishonest people freedom of speech

 In reading the Addy Indy’s recent coverage of the protests at Middlebury College against a talk by author Charles Murray, I was struck by a profound feeling that some much-needed perspective was missing. While it is true that freedom of speech is a bedrock of our nation’s democratic ideals, it is hardly a black-and-white issue (no pun intended). Freedom of Speech is, like everything else down here in the real world, complicated.
 There are times and places where speech must be limited in order to protect the vulnerable and ensure the greater good. The most famous example of this is the person shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater, causing panic and possible bodily harm when there is in fact no fire. Hate speech is a little more complicated and harder to define, but its effects can also be far more insidious, dangerous and far-reaching.
 As a younger man, I spent five years living and studying in Germany — a country where free speech is highly prized, but which nevertheless finds it necessary to outlaw speech and political parties that veer too close to the Nazi ideology. They do this because they have first-hand experience with what can happen when poisonous ideas catch hold in susceptible populations.
We now find ourselves in a time where two such poisonous ideologies are gaining ground around the world. On the one hand we have radical Islamic terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaida. On the other hand the rapid rise of far-right white nationalists in Europe and, of course, right here at home. These twin poisons are feeding and inflaming each other, hate versus hate.
 Into this toxic mix, Middlebury College somehow thought it was a good idea to invite a speaker well known for pseudo-scientific books that lend support to white nationalist theories? How were they expecting ethnic minority students to feel about that?
At the very least, the decision strikes me as profoundly tone-deaf. I do not doubt that college representatives were acting with the best of intentions in seeking a dialog, but they failed to realize that inviting hate speech — however mild-mannered and genteel — onto campus only serves to legitimize and normalize it. It is a tough call, but I feel the students were correct not to tolerate it.
Unfortunately, the violent turn the protests took later in the evening muddied the water considerably. That was wrong, and those responsible did not do the peaceful protesters any favors. I strongly support the exchange of ideas and the mingling of opposing viewpoints. But this only works when both sides come to the table in the same spirit of openness and honesty.
The problem with engaging people like Charles Murray is they are not interested in getting to the truth of issues or finding common ground. They are interested in spreading false impressions and misinformation that is advantageous to them and which they may well know to be factually false. 
Granting them a public forum as one of two opposing viewpoints creates the impression that their distortions and “alternative facts” have equal value as the honest opinions and actual facts of their opponents. It is akin to news organizations granting equal time to legitimate climate change scientists as well as climate change deniers; creating the impression that both views are equally valid, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Dan Brett

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