It exposes them to the light of examination and ultimately holds them accountable for what they say and do.
In troubled times we struggle with how much to tolerate from the other side, especially the extreme edges. We’ve seen recent attempts to force cancellation of speeches and rallies, or to not air programs like Megyn Kelly’s interview with right-wing conspiracy theorist and serial ranter Alex Jones.
Protests, concerns over public safety, boycotts and withdrawal of financial support are legal and legitimate ways to counter speech and speakers with which one doesn’t agree.
But in the big picture, I say let them speak. They will become their own worst enemy. Their prejudice, lies and hypocrisies will be their own undoing if forced to face the vigilance of a more rational, reasoned world.
When I started the University of Oregon in 1965 as a small-towner from Molalla, one of the first things I noticed was the Free Speech Platform on the student union terrace, there for anyone to use, at any time, to say what they wished to anyone, or no one.
It had been gifted by the Class of ’62, after student government experienced first hand effects of efforts to shut down free speech.
In one incident an invited speaker, a quirky union of church and state advocate calling himself the “King of All Nations and Men” had to be whisked away to avoid tomatoes and firecrackers. In another, the University resisted vile and angry pressure to cancel a speech by Gus Hall, head of the US Communist Party.
In a 2010 policy statement the university reaffirmed what that free speech platform represented. “The belief that an opinion is pernicious, false, and in any other way despicable, detestable, offensive, or ‘just wrong’ cannot be grounds for its suppression,” it said.
Any discussion of free speech tends to echo the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who wrote in 1927 that “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Ironically those words come from his concurrence in a case, Whitney v. California, that stifled free speech by upholding a 1919 law used to punish a woman for organizing the Communist Labor Party. But his free speech discourse eventually became foundation for the 1969 decision, Brandenburg v. Ohio, which explicitly overruled Whitney and established that mere advocacy of a doctrine, even if it assumed violence, was protected.
It is best to heed Brandeis. When those with which we disagree exercise their right to free speech we have the opportunity to counter it and hold them accountable.
We have our own local example in former City Councilor Daniel Benjamin who posted a video showing African-Americans being run over by vehicles accompanied by a statement explaining it showed people getting tired of “BlackLivesMatter bullies blocking the roadway.”
Before the election he held views in private. After Trump’s election he was apparently emboldened enough to freely go public. But he was also a public figure representing a broader populace and the public reaction was swift and harsh. Benjamin resigned, unanimously censured by his City Council colleagues, having been exposed by the free speech he exercised.