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Curtailing Free Speech Due to Safety Concerns: Ploy or Reality

I am a lover of ideas. Old interesting ideas applied to new conditions, new fascinating ideas applied to old or new dynamics — I love them all. Most ideas form ideologies, which are usually located in this day and age along the ideological line that extends from the far left to the far right. Even though I am sure most people advise people to make a left turn to find my ideological location, I do tend to agree with several ideas traditionally ascribed to the right. 

This love of ideas is what causes me to cherish the academy—that haven of ideas where all of them are welcome. Or are they? It would be pretty naïve of me to believe that all ideas and ideologies are embraced and respected equally in the academy. 

Consequently, legions of academicians and defenders of free speech outside the academy have struggled for ages to push open the doors to the academy. They have reasoned that, in order for a place of higher learning to truly be diverse and inclusive, every perspective and idea, no matter how left-or-right wing, needs to receive an admission ticket. Personally, I receive as much intellectual satisfaction listening to and (usually) debating right-wing scholars as I do nodding my head to left-wing scholars.

Part of that struggle has been challenging tactics used to suppress free speech. One subterfuge that has been used in the past, and may have recently been used on at least two infamous occasions on the West coast, is the tactic of cancelling an event due to safety concerns.

At Tarleton State University in Stephenville, an openly gay 26-year-old theater student, John Jordan Otte, chose to put on the one-act play Corpus Christi for a class assignment. The play written by Texas native and Tony-winner Terrence McNally depicts Jesus Christ and his disciples as gay—two of whom are married by Jesus before he is crucified as the “King of Queers.” Word circulated quickly around campus, the state, and across the nation, which of course led to a homophobic firestorm of rhetoric and threats that ravaged this small Texas town. 

Even Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said on the eve of the performance, “Every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech, but no one should have the right to use government funds or institutions to portray acts that are morally reprehensible to the majority of Americans.” (In other words, we are only entitled to free speech that is morally sanctioned by the majority.)

Hours after Dewhurst released the statement, Mark Holtorf, the professor of the course, cancelled the performance, citing security concerns and “the need to maintain an orderly academic environment,” according to The Texas Tribune. As far as I am concerned, there cannot be an “orderly academic environment” without free speech—free speech provides the order. To me, that is the only reasonable reason why campus police forces should be as large as they are—to defend the order of free speech from vigilantes who threaten it. 

Also recently, the University of Wyoming (UW) used the same reason (or was it a ploy?) to bar University of Illinois-Chicago education professor William Ayers from speaking on its campus. Ayers, an already well-known thinker and activist in radical circles, became a mainstream figure when Sarah Palin tried to link him to Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign. When people learned that the Social Justice Research Center had invited Ayers to speak, the university received hundreds of e-mails and telephone calls, some threatening, opposing his visit. One caller said he and his friends would take care of Ayers in “the Cowboy way,” according to the Associated Press.

Ayers and UW student Meg Lanker sued the university over the matter, saying UW violated the First Amendment. UW is claiming, as I expect Tarleton State would if sued, that it should be able to bar a speaker for safety reasons.

The case is now in the hands of a federal judge. It will be interesting to see how the judge rules. Because, if U.S. District Judge William Downes rules in favor of the university, then I will become very concerned about the future of free speech in our supposed haven of diverse ideas. It would send a memorandum that all people have to do is send a flurry of threatening e-mails and calls to a college if they disagree with someone and do not want that person (whether right-wing or left-wing) to speak.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of African-American history at SUNY College at Oneonta.

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