Insults and the Constitution

March 7, 2005

Insult is powerful. Insult begets both rage and humor, and often at the same time. Consider the dialogue in “Romance,” a new play by David Mamet in New York. A cast of six characters, all of themmen, some gay and at least one of them Jewish, goesafter each other.

A Protestant defense lawyer and the Jew he’s in court to defend hate eachother. “You people can’t order a cheese sandwich without mentioning the Holocaust,” shouts the lawyer.

“I hired a goy lawyer,” responds his client. “It’s like going to a straight hairdresser.” The satire aims for humor, but it’s humor without bite. A reviewer for the New York Times calls it behind the curve, “pushing an envelope that’s already been shredded.” Religious and homosexual barbs are no longer funny because they’ve been played out in court of public opinion and the stereotypes have lost their power to wound. We’ve become more tolerant because we’re tired of the debate.

That’s the glory of a free society that honors, even if reluctantly, free speech. We’re able to absorb some of the most outrageous insults in the battle of ideas because reaction and rebuttal inevitably dilute the venom and force us to think even harder about what’s said. Such disgusting speech, for example, as uttered by the utterly disgusting Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado falls under the protection of the First Amendment. When he compared the innocents slain at the World Trade Center to Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s most dependable henchman, and characterized the Islamist hijackers as making gallant sacrifices, he set off a chain reaction of public outrage.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (thefire.org), which revels in its acronym FIRE because it turns up the heat on campuses that attempt to melt down guarantees of free speech, makes this point in a letter to the Interim Chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder: “Supreme Court case law makes it quite clear that ‘if there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive and disagreeable.” Greg Lukianoff, director of Legal and Public Advocacy for FIRE, argues that the case presents the university with a significant opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to the First Amendment: “Liberty faces a far greater threat from a rejection of the First Amendment than it does from the opinions of Ward Churchill.” What should hearten everyone who values academic freedom is the way the reactions to Ward Churchill’s remarks rebut his slurs, testifying to the power of debate and argument.

Freedom of speech is always more difficult to defend when it crosses what passes for mainstream thinking. The remarks of Larry Summers, the embattled president of Harvard, were not characterized as a freedom of speech issue, but if he had been fired for suggesting a debate over the origins of the differences between the sexes, his dismissal would have been an encroachment on freedom of speech. Alan Dershowitz, defending President Summers, observed that if he had been forced out “it would become only a matter of time before professors, researchers and students would be subjected to discipline for expressing similar ideas.” On such occasions, the offensive ideas are always somebody else’s. To paraphrase Henry Higgins, “Why can’t he think more like me?”

The University of Alabama offers another example of freedom of speech at work — and under fire. After a comedian insulted gay students at a performance on campus last fall, the Faculty Senate demanded restrictive speech codes to ban “hate speech” about “race, ethnicity, religion, culture, gender, sexual orientation or physical challenges.” (What else would sophomores talk about?)  The Student Senate, aware in a way their campus elders weren’t of the consequences of such a ban, adopted a free speech resolution asking the university to guarantee a university atmosphere “where new and often controversial ideas must be discussed openly and rationally in order to make advances in knowledge.” The students observed that free speech does not condone hate, but promotes tolerance by enabling differences of opinion.

Thomas Jefferson got it right: “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Crippling reason is not smart.

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Schools: Harvard University University of Colorado at Boulder Cases: University of Colorado at Boulder: Investigation of Professor for Controversial Essay