Teachable Moments

Here in Indiana,  our local media recently reported on a controversy at Purdue.  A professor had posted anti-gay opinions on his private website, and students were predictably up in arms–not just at Purdue, but on my campus as well. Purdue declined to take any action against the professor in question, and I fielded several inquiries from my own students, who were curious about my opinion of the situation. They knew me to be a strong (occasionally strident) proponent of equal rights for gays and lesbians, and wanted to know what I thought about Purdue’s decision to do nothing about this expression of anti-gay animus.

These sorts of conflicts provide us with valuable “teachable moments.”

As I told my students, Purdue was exactly right. The posting was not to an official Purdue site; there was no likelihood that the sentiments would be attributed to the University. It was a private opinion, expressed by someone with whom I strongly disagree. Purdue is a government entity; the whole point of the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause is to prohibit government from censoring or punishing people who say unpopular or disagreeable things.

As I explained to my own students, people who want to control what others can read, view or download generally have the best of motives: they want to protect others from ideas they believe to be dangerous. To them, those of us defending civil liberties often appear oblivious to the clear potential for evil. (At best, they consider us naïve First Amendment “purists;” at worst,  moral degenerates.)

Most of us, I hope, cringe when someone uses a racial or religious insult, or otherwise denigrates people based upon their race, religion or sexual orientation. But in a free society, the appropriate response is education, not suppression. It is more and better speech—not censorship.

Well-intentioned as some of these efforts may be, what they signal is a profound lack of respect for the constitutional right of others to hold wrong opinions–or opinions contrary to their own.

When the public is faced with expression that offends us—that is uncivil or unfair or hateful—we have an unfortunate tendency to confuse a defense of the speaker’s right to free speech with an endorsement of the contents of that speech. So an argument that government cannot—and should not—ban offensive videos, or the Klan’s despicable rhetoric, or hate speech directed at marginalized groups, is seen as an endorsement of the pornography or racism or other hateful sentiments.  It isn’t. 

America’s founders understood that ideas have consequences. They also understood a profound truth: giving government the power to decide what ideas are acceptable is much more dangerous than even the most dangerous idea.

We have an obligation to explain that to our students, and incidents like the recent one at Purdue afford us the opportunity to do so.

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