Letter to the Editor: Students should learn state’s record on free speech
In 1799, Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont was sentenced to 4 months in jail and fined $1,000 plus court costs of $69.96 as punishment for violating the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 by calling President John Adams a monarch. The founder of Fair Haven was re-elected to Congress while imprisoned in a frigid cell in Vergennes and later cast the tie-breaking vote that elected Thomas Jefferson President in 1800.
First Amendment law and norms have come a long way since those rocky days in the 18th century, having survived the Red Scare of 1919; the attempts to lock up Communists in the 1920s and 1930s; the witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee; the Blacklist; and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s indecency in the 50s; the efforts to intimidate The New York Times and other news outlets with libel suits during the Civil Rights struggle in the 60s; the lawsuit filed to prevent Neo-Nazis from marching in Skokie in the 70s; and the attempts to punish flag burners and war protesters in the 60s, 70s, and 2000s — each time becoming a stronger pillar of democracy and human rights.
Alas, as the events last week at McCullough Hall illustrate, each generation must learn anew what the First Amendment means. When it became known that student members of the American Enterprise Institute Club at Middlebury College had invited well-known author Charles Murray to address them and others in the Middlebury Community, peals of protest from current and former students (and a few faculty members) rolled out in opposition to allowing him to speak at all.
Leaders of the Political Science Department as well as the President of the College sought to make Dr. Murray’s talk the occasion for a rational debate. However, in a letter opposing the upcoming lecture, over 450 Middlebury alums (most graduates within the last five years) wrote, “This is not an issue of freedom of speech.”
That, of course, is precisely what it was and is. At a time when that core freedom is under attack again, with the President of the United States calling a free press the “enemy of the people,” we cannot afford to be muddle-headed on this point.
As the Supreme Court has ruled, there are limits to unfettered speech. We may not incite a crowd to lynch an identified individual. Neither does the First Amendment protect libel or slander — at least not after the fact.
Unlike such exceptions, the Charles Murray lecture was more akin to the circumstances Justice Brandeis had in mind when he wrote in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence,” a view that is often expressed more succinctly as, “the remedy for bad speech is more speech.”
In the aftermath of a similar incident in Manhattan 10 years ago, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger wrote, “This is not complicated: Students and faculty have rights to invite speakers to the campus. Others have rights to hear them. Those who wish to protest have rights to do so. No one, however, shall have the right or the power to use the cover of protest to silence speakers. This is a sacrosanct and inviolable principle.”
Dr. Bollinger added that, “We all sense how easy it is to slide from our collective commitment to the hard work of intellectual confrontation to the easy path of physical brutishness.”
Could there be a mission more central to the work of one of the top-level colleges in the United States than that of pursuing the “hard work of intellectual confrontation” and opposing “the easy path of physical brutishness?”
Fifty years ago, on July 4, I was arrested along with eventually 34 others for handing out anti-war leaflets in front of Independence Hall. A non-lawyer magistrate convicted us en masse of disturbing the peace ($10 or five days in jail), which, if it was disturbed at all, was disturbed by the vociferous denunciations of passing patriots — what I later came to know as “the heckler’s veto.”
It was Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in a book on Voltaire, who penned the words, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I was glad that a group of ACLU-affiliated lawyers spontaneously came to our aid in Philadelphia without regard to the wisdom of our views and eventually obtained a complete reversal of our convictions. I know the value of Voltaire’s sentiment.
The Middlebury Community has received a black eye from the successful attempt by outsiders as well as some current and former students to suppress a lecture by a controversial speaker and the physical violence that occurred when he tried to leave. I hope that we all will find ways to talk through this incident and learn from mistakes made.
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