Campus Scenes

Shut Up, He Instructed

Does freedom of expression exclude the right to offend?

By 2.26.09

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I have only a dim memory of my college speech class, but I recall one speech rather clearly. A male student demonstrated how to tie a Windsor knot using the rabbit-hole technique. While this seemed more like an in-store demonstration than a speech, I can say with all honesty that "how to tie a Windsor knot" was one of the more useful things I learned at college.

Such innocuous speeches were par for the course during my college days. But then, I went to school during the latter Reagan years, at a fairly conservative university, which may be why I remember no topics more controversial than a Windsor knot. Had I attended a decade earlier or later there doubtless would have been speeches about Watergate and its bawdy successor Monicagate.

I suspect most of the speeches delivered in today's classrooms regard global warming, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how President Barack Obama will save the world. But what I'd like to hear -- just once -- would be for some courageous student to deliver a speech defending unpopular speech. He or she might take as his text several recent stories where unpopular speech has been suppressed by, in one instance, a professor at Los Angeles City College, and in the second, the British government.

Now colleges and governments are supposed to be defenders of free speech, but as any conservative can tell you they are often its greatest threats. In our first example, the British Government recently denied entry to politician Geert Wilders due largely to the Dutch MP having produced a short film about jihad. Fitna is a pastiche of disturbing Koran passages, graphic images and audio from terrorist attacks, by cameos from hate-spewing old Muslim guys with long beards and turbans. This class of video has been all over YouTube since 9/11, so why go to so much trouble to prevent Wilders' from premiering his film now?

One word: blackmail. 

The once-stalwart British people have been blackmailed by one of their own elected representatives. When British Muslim Peer Lord Ahmed threatened to dispatch 10,000 of his co-religionists into the streets if Wilders were granted entry, the British government rolled over like a trained dog. Quaking British MPs had visions of the Danish Cartoon Riots dancing through their heads in hobnailed boots. Fear is almost always the main motivation for suppressing speech.

FEAR WAS ALSO the motivation behind the silencing of Jonathan Lopez. Lopez, a Speech 101 student at Los Angeles City College, had just delivered a speech on Christianity and same-sex marriage when his instructor, Professor John Matteson, allegedly called Lopez a "fascist bastard." You really have to know what you are doing to get a professor of speech worked up enough to call a student a "fascist bastard," and evidently, by mentioning Christianity and morals in the same speech, Mr. Lopez had pressed all the right buttons.

Now, I can imagine a number of ideas and opinions would make certain sensitive individuals uncomfortable. And, indeed, two students from Matteson's speech class later complained to the LACC dean about Lopez' "preachy," "completely inappropriate" and "deeply offensive speech." The unidentified student said he respected Lopez's right to free speech, but not that kind of speech and not in his speech class.

This was mild stuff compared to his classmate who seemed out for blood: "I don't know what kind of actions can be taken in this situation, but I expect that this student should have to pay some price for preaching hate in the classroom."

One almost forgets we are dealing here with adults -- adults who demand that unpopular or religious opinions not be heard in a college speech class -- which begs the question, if not there, where? Such incidents serve only to reinforce my belief that many people attending our colleges and universities have no business being there, that they are simply too intellectually immature for courses involving debatable ideas and opinions.

Meanwhile the Dutch foreign minister spoke for many politicians, professors and, Speech 101 students, when he suggested, "Freedom of expression doesn't mean the right to offend," a peculiar interpretation of speech rights, to say the least. Had it not been for unpopular, controversial, or offensive language the Founding Fathers might have just skipped the First Amendment and moved on to arguing about guns. Once again, we seem to have forgotten that speech rights were created not to curb the offensive speech of individual citizens, but to prevent Big Brother from telling us what we can and cannot say.

It just so happens I don't particularly agree with either of these beleaguered gentlemen. Wilders calls for the banning of Islamic books, while whining about his rights being violated. As for Mr. Lopez, well, I am no advocate of same-sex marriage, yet I doubt its legalization will in any way hasten the apocalypse.

For centuries the West lived by the Enlightenment maxim that while we may disapprove of what someone says, we would defend to the death one's right to say it. It is sad to see that today the precepts of Voltaire et al. have given way to Matteson's motto: "Shut up, you fascist bastard!"

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.