Students went into protest mode at The New School in New York City when the university’s president, Bob Kerrey, former governor of Nebraska and a former United States senator, invited Sen. John McCain to address the graduates at this year’s commencement ceremony.
Fuming that someone from a different political perspective would be speaking, students circulated a petition to get McCain’s invitation revoked. “Senator McCain’s crime appears to be that he is a conservative,” reported Niall Stanage in the New York Observer. “The protesters’ absurd rationale is that having the Senator at the ceremony is not compatible with the institution’s commitment to freethinking.”
Defined in undiluted Orwellian terms by those seeking to bar McCain from campus, “freethinking” means that every- one’s free to think in the same way, free to become all the same, ideologically, adhering to a groupthink straightjacket that can’t tolerate hearing from a semi-conservative politician for half an hour.
Finding it “extremely distasteful and hypocritical to allow McCain to speak,” Brittany Charlton, the vice-chairman of the University Student Senate, told the New York Times that Mc- Cain was “someone who does not value the ideals we have consistently been taught in our education.”
One wonders how many students at The New School ever had a good classroom discussion about the declaration famously attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Did these students ever talk about what Salman Rushdie meant when he said, “Free speech is life itself”? Do they know that a fatwa ordering Rushdie’s execution and the killing of his publishers was proclaimed in 1989 on Radio Tehran by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran at the time, as punishment for his writing a “blasphemous” novel?
McCain ran into the same problem at Columbia University, with students circulating petitions to keep him off campus because he’d given the graduation address at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, thereby, according to the protesters, flashing a sign of approval to Falwell’s brand of politics. With any consistency in thinking, these aggrieved Columbia students might well have concluded that McCain, by agreeing to speak at Columbia, was flashing a sign of approval to their school’s particular brand of politics, except for the fact that Columbia and Liberty University are poles apart politically and McCain spoke at both.
The easy answer, one that the upset students at Columbia appear to have missed, is that McCain, who is likely to be making a run for the White House in the next presidential election, was simply looking for some free exposure during commencement season. Worrying that he has theocracy up his sleeve because he spoke at Liberty University makes about as much sense as worrying that he’s got a secret plan in the works to outlaw meat if he ever shows up to give the keynote address at the American Vegan Society.
In any case, what’s disquieting about these efforts to silence a speaker isn’t the lack of rational argument among the students, or their inconsistencies in making their case.
What’s worse is that they seem not to have learned, after spending years in higher education, that censorship is far more dangerous than free speech, that we’re more likely to find the truth through freedom of expression and open-mindedness, through free inquiry and an uncensored exchange of ideas, than through the suppression of ideas and the repression of free speech.
The idea that people should be silenced so that they won’t be able to say anything that might be “offensive” to someone else, the concept that the individual must submit to a group- think orthodox)j the idea that the individual must submit to what’s best for everyone else, for the collective, represent direct strikes at the heart of American democracy and individual liberty.
“Without free speech no search for truth is possible,” wrote 19th-century British social reformer Charles Bradlaugh. “Better a thousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial slays the life of the people.”