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Between the Lines: Intolerant of Dissent

The treatment of a conservative speaker at UMass should embarrass genuine liberals.

Comments (6)
Thursday, May 21, 2009

Those who charge that modern-day liberalism has become fundamentally illiberal toward speech and ideas that challenge its own dogma could ask for no better illustration than recent events at UMass-Amherst.

On March 11, the Republican Club at UMass hosted Don Feder, a conservative journalist, addressing the subject of hate speech and hate crimes. Feder believes that legislation which singles out hate crimes with special penalties, rather than treating all violent crime equally, amounts to unconstitutional punishment of bad speech or bad thoughts. He also disputes the notion of a hate crime epidemic in America.

A group of left-wing students announced their intent to protest Feder's appearance. The campus police then demanded the organizers pay an added $444 for security, nearly tripling the costs to the club.

It's bad enough to place a burden on unpopular views by requiring student organizations to shoulder extra costs for hosting controversial speakers. It's doubly outrageous when, even with the extra costs, the controversial speech is still silenced.

While Feder was not shouted down or physically threatened as some other speakers have been, the protesters were blatantly disruptive from the start. They laughed raucously when Feder was introduced as an "author and intellectual." The announcement that no protests or disruptions would be tolerated during the speech was greeted with open jeers.

As Feder began to speak, the protesters hissed and hooted. At one point, a group of them noisily turned around their chairs to face away from the podium. Finally, a woman in the audience interrupted Feder, rising to shout out a statement about the murder of a transgendered African-American woman. Feder asked the police to escort her out; she walked out on her own, to the cheers of her fellow protesters, and even paused to wave to her friends and yell a derogatory comment to Feder. As the disruptions continued, Feder cut his speech short and left the podium.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that champions civil liberties in academia, took up the case on behalf of the Republican Club, asking UMass-Amherst to refund the extra security fee. On April 9, UMass agreed to refund the money, but denied any impropriety on the part of the college.

Freedom of speech does not protect speakers from criticism. But disruption and harassment are another matter. The students who objected to Feder's ideas could have engaged him in forceful debate during the question period. They were also within their rights to hold up signs and posters expressing their objections. It is worth noting, however, that some of the signs—"Abolish hate" and "Hate speech leads to hate crimes"—supports concerns that hate crime legislation ultimately targets thoughts and speech. This is worrisome since some definitions of "hate" are broad enough to include opposition to affirmative action, abortion or same-sex marriage.

A genuine liberal would be embarrassed by these actions. But in some quarters, intolerance of dissent is now a cause for self-congratulation. When Feder noted that he's spoken on numerous college campuses and has never experienced anything of the sort, one student could be heard shouting, "Go UMass!"

This is not to say that the right wing does not have its own hypocrisies and double standards when it comes to free speech. In 2003, when New York Times reporter Chris Hedges criticized the war in Iraq in a commencement speech at Rockford College in Illinois and was forced off the podium by protesters who disconnected the microphone twice, conservatives such as Washington Times editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden were supportive of the hecklers. More recently, concerns about protests have led to the cancellation of controversial left-wing speakers like William Ayers and Ward Churchill. Much to FIRE's credit, despite having the reputation of a right-of-center group, it has consistently supported free speech in all these cases.

Most of us probably regard some speech and some speakers as so far beyond the pale of civilized discourse that there is no point in debating them, only in branding them unacceptable. But, however satisfying such a stance may be, it could be only a matter of time before the speech beyond the pale is your own.

Comments (6)
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The speaker has had 40 years to raise constitutional objections to such laws, and in 40 years, they have never been used to suppress free speech. Anti-semitic and racist groups continue to be able to espouse their noxious views. The author should have no fear that he too could continue to call for the deaths of Blacks, Jews or Gays with equal impunity under this law. He's just not allowed to actually kill them. These people are very obviously lying, openly and blatantly, out of pure homophobia. They wish to continue to be able to commit violent acts against Gays and escape prosecution, because the local Sheriff or District Attorney is of like mind. Just as used to happen when Blacks were victims, 50 years ago. BUT..... The antidote to bad speech and falsehood is not to suppress it: it's to answer it with better and more truthful speech, which in turn can be challenged and put to the test. I have to agree completely with Cathy Young here. And Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire. "Je ne suis pas d'accord avec un mot de ce que vous dites, mais je me battrai jusqu'à la mort pour votre droit de le dire." Which if my schoolgirl French is accurate, is best translated as "I dont' agree with a word you say, but I'll fight to the death for your right to say it". Melodramatic, but yes, we do have to make a stand for freedom of speech, *especially* when the speaker is so obviously, terminally and completely full of it.
Posted by Zoe Brain on 5.21.09 at 3:40
I believe the rapper Coolio said it best: "If you can't take the heat, get yo' ass out the kitchen." In other words, if someone decides to speak before a crowd that is hostile to him or her, that's fine, but one should be ready and prepared for heckling and abuse - whether it is a conservative that is afraid hate crime laws will make it illegal for him to tell people what his invisible friend thinks about gays or whether it is Ted Kennedy speaking at Bob Jones University. The behavior of the crowd may not be stellar, it may not be pretty - but you don't have the right to not be heckled from the stage. People have a right to speak, and a right to protest. I personally am not opposed to Ayers or Churchill, but I know that some people are. I should go and show my support of the speakers, but the protesters should not have to be silent simply because some people don't like heckling.
Posted by Michael Foley on 5.21.09 at 16:25
I don't often comment on opinion articles, but this author deserves a complement for a well written piece and a logical position on the matter. It's ironic that those whose voices are loudest about the right to speak freely are exactly the ones who consider it "normal" or "acceptable" to shout down opposing views. It's a simple matter of civility and maturity that unfortunately is missing not only from public discourse but also from our politics as well. My 10 year old, when 8, used to shout over his sister to prevent her from get her message out - usually she was telling on him of course. Even he now understands he is better off letting her narc him out and then pleading his case with me in his own words. And his brain isn't even fully formed as yet! Those shouting during our president's address to Notre Dame proved what is true in all cases. You do nothing to convince the other side or even those straddling the line with such outbursts. They, like the students in ths article, I suspect only accomplished getting the remainder of their core group excited back at the dorm or the house or whatever. They perhaps shared high fives or toasts, but they really accomplished nothing at all. And in the cases where it's worse than shouting - say tossing debris or trying to get physical in some way or another - they actually do more harm than good. They only prove themselves to be goons or thugs or whatever word you please. So, I congratulate the author for the fairness and logical conclusion in this article. IMHO - she is more a journalist than many out there and likely has a good future just by that distinction alone.
Posted by John S on 5.21.09 at 19:27
A lot of things went wrong that day on campus. I was not there, but I have spoken to many who were. Even my more liberal friends said that it was an irresponsible and disgusting display on the part of the protestors. Free Speech, agreeable or not, should be exercised at all points. The protestors were protected by the right to assemble, but they did not do so peacefully, so they spat on the Constitution in that way and in restricting the speaker from voicing his opinions. I don't agree with most of his philosophies but they are nevertheless important to the balance of political thought in the community. We saw how bad things got with ultra-conservative politics flying free for 8 years without effective opposition. Imagine how reprehensible our situation would get if the liberals got their way 110% of the time.
Posted by Eric Tripoli on 5.22.09 at 4:40
Hecklers are obnoxious. They give their otherwise cause a bad image. Mass heckling is mob mentality. It seems less about "For the cause!" than, "Look at me! Look at me!" John S. was right to compare such disrespectful childishness with the social development of an eight-year old.
Posted by Gregory Lewis on 5.25.09 at 3:58
To the author of the article and the public: Please do not be shocked or dismayed at how a group of left-wing Umass students acted towards a right-wing speaker who came to campus. Those students were only acting in accordance with what is normal behaviour in the surrounding town. Amherst townies are what I call liberal fascists-intolerant, racist (but hiding behind multiculturalism, diversity and other such movements), classist, generally bigoted and plain old hateful of people not "like them". I am a GENUINE liberal and I have been watching them at work for over a decade. I remain unimpressed. Peace, Habibi Krasin Springfield, Massachusetts
Posted by Habibi Lindiwe Krasin on 5.30.09 at 8:45
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