“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”
This statement was surely not reflective of the First Amendment when voiced by Albus Dumbledore in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” but the words are as significant today in the muggle world as they ever were among wizards.
And they are indicative of a modern-day fight of good over evil, right against wrong.
It’s a fight to save free speech on today’s college campuses, and one I fear we might be losing.
Ami Horowitz shined his satirical light on the problem in early December when he filmed a quest to get Yale students to sign a fake petition making the United States a “safe space,” by repealing the First Amendment.
Considering universities have for so long been incubators for radical ideas, open discussion and creative thought, I assumed such a quest would be futile.
You know what they say about ass-u-me.
It took less than an hour to get 50 students to sign off on the repeal, with responses like:
“I think this is fantastic; I absolutely agree.”
“Excellent! Love it!”
“I totally agree with where you are at.”
“I think it’s really awesome that you are out here. Good luck.”
I am praying such answers were driven by an imperious curse, or we are all headed for dark times.
Earlier this year Yale was already in the First Amendment crosshairs when lecturer Erika Christakis resigned after being publicly scolded by students after sending this email about tolerance for Halloween costumes:
“Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious, a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?
“If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
An inflammatory view, indeed.
The best class discussions we have in our journalism classes are driven by viewpoints that diverge and meld—ones expressed without fear of reprisal because we, as Americans, have the right to speak freely.
We follow the motto that honesty without compassion is brutality, so we treat each other’s ideas with respect, and honor our right to differ in belief and views.
One of the key points we drive home is that what offends one may be a foundational belief for another, whether that is the superiority of chocolate over vanilla, Republican over Democrat, Philadelphia Eagles over New England Patriots, military might or pacifism.
Those who are so willing to dismiss the First Amendment as frivolous and disposable have clearly lost sight of why the five freedoms were the first guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Fifth-grade history taught it was the tyranny of a government unchecked by debate, dialogue or criticism that drove a revolution.
It is history we cannot forget or we will be doomed to repeat.
Who, pray tell, will be arbiter of what is acceptable should speech not be free for all?
How will we decide what language is “safe”?
In our desire to offend no one, will we ultimately offend everyone?
With our fear of “micro-aggressions,” and the establishment of free speech zones, are we turning campuses once lauded for shaping discourse and community debate into padded bounce houses, where college “kids” can be safe and protected from the world around them?
The answers may lie in the 1927 concurring opinion issued by Justice Louis Brandeis in Whitney v. California, in which the court upheld the California’s Criminal Syndicalism Act prohibiting the advocacy, teaching or aiding the commission of a crime.
Brandeis stressed that only clear and imminent threats of “serious evils” could justify free-speech suppression, based on the framework for freedom established by the Founding Fathers.
“To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion,” Brandeis wrote. “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.”