Freedom Fragile

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Too many Americans are in favor of free speech only as long as they agree with the speech. The television demagogues are after a Colorado professor who compared some of the victims of the 9/11 attack to Nazi bureaucrats. The demagogues think he ought to be fired.

The professor, Ward Churchill, looks like a leftover hippie from the 1960s, and I assume he is a radical leftist. His remarks were certainly offensive, especially to the families who lost loved ones in the attack.

But it pays to remember the old childhood saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." If the protection of the First Amendment is to have any meaning at all, then it must protect speech that some will find offensive or disrespectful. Speech everybody agrees with doesn’t need any protection.

Thomas Jefferson said that to ensure the right to speak our own conscience we must always protect the right of others to speak their conscience. So, the professor is a jerk. Ignore him. He is certainly not the only jerk who is on the public payroll. He has a right to his opinions, and he has a right to express them.

There is a profoundly practical basis for protecting free speech. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth about anything. Yet we all seek it. The more voices there are, the greater the probability that the truth will be found. What would you rather have — a thousand scientists looking for a cure for cancer, or one health czar who claims he has the answer and nobody may disagree with him? The more minds brought to bear on any problem, the more likely a solution will be found.

Because I am a conservative, I have made it a practice to read liberal and progressive magazines. There is not much point in reading only people you agree with. You will learn nothing that way. We should always be willing to challenge our own assumptions and beliefs, because, as I said, none of us has all the answers to all the questions. None of us knows everything there is to know about anything.

The demagogues making a mountain out of a previously obscure professor are taking the usual tact that he has a right to his opinion but not a right to teach in a public school. This is similar to a Jewish outfit trying to get rid of professors whose opinions about the Middle East don’t jibe with those of Israel. Well, if you take that tack, then academic freedom is as dead as a squashed possum. If there is any place on Earth where people should be free to disagree, it is the university.

This notion that students have to be protected from "wrong opinions" is an insult to the students. Unless a student is a psychological cripple in search of a guru, the student can decide for himself whether he agrees or disagrees with the professor’s take on things.

I disagree with so many people that if I were to avoid them all, I’d have to become a hermit. If someone can show me new facts or point out errors in my reasoning, I’m open to change; if the person can’t, then his or her different opinions roll off my own like rain on a tin roof. I freely admit that sensitivity has never been my forte. I try to tell the truth as best I can determine it, and how other people react is their business.

I’m strongly opposed to laws against so-called hate speech. Bigots must also receive shelter under the First Amendment. There is no such thing as a free society in which the government can control what people think and say and punish those with whom it decides to disagree.

Freedom is fragile. It is in peril every single day and therefore must be defended by those who cherish it, even if it means defending the rights of people we think are lunkheads or bigots or fools or fanatics. Freedom, like virginity, is either intact or nonexistent.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.

© 2005 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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