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Three Reasons to Debate, Not Silence, Opposing Views

By on November 1, 2013

Today in The Huffington Post, Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, shared a letter he wrote to the Brown University community about New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s policies and about Brown students’ preventing Kelly from speaking at the school Tuesday night. While expressing strong disagreement with Kelly’s policies, Meyers contrasted students’ attitudes with those of students in the free speech movement of the 1960s:

[S]tudents back then protested university regulations that had restricted outside political speakers. So, it is more than ironic, then — indeed, it is unnerving and appalling — that, in 2013, when free speech rights and principles have been so firmly embedded as critical to free inquiry and discourse at a liberal arts university, students — in the guise of protecting minority rights and protesting racism on the part of the police — would heckle, disrupt and effectively veto the talk of an invited, albeit controversial speaker.

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We tolerate a lot in a society that values free speech — because we have to, in order to preserve our collective freedom. We cannot have free speech for ourselves but not for others — “them.” If that is the standard of judgment — for censorship — it won’t be long before we (our side) are ‘them” and we are subjected to arbitrary and capricious political litmus tests for our unpopular, unfashionable and controversial speech.

Meyers isn’t alone in defending the right of all speakers to share their viewpoints. Writing for The Huffington Post on Wednesday, Tufts University senior Michael Restiano explained why Brown students’ strategy of silencing Kelly is counterproductive. Restiano disagrees with many of Kelly’s actions and policies, but argued that allowing Kelly to speak is essential to strengthening the fight against those policies:

The only test of whether or not an argument or method of thinking is strong is if it can stand up to criticism from the other side of the table. If your argument can logically dominate its counter-argument, then chances are it is valid and strong.

How are you ever going to test your beliefs if you refuse to even listen to the opposition?

And, as FIRE’s Peter Bonilla points out in a piece for PolicyMic today, allowing the expression of ideas deemed wrong or harmful leads to those views being soundly defeated in the “marketplace of ideas.” For example:

[W]hile the [Ku Klux Klan] is not gone and certainly not forgotten, it is hard to think of a bigger loser in the marketplace of ideas. A violent and politically influential force in the days when racism was a matter of law, the KKK has decreased enough in size and influence that we can have a collective laugh at its expense on Chappelle’s show. This is in no small part due to the fact that rather than repress their opinions, the First Amendment has given the KKK an outlet for legal expression in the marketplace — allowing for the rejection of its views.

Check out Meyers’ article and Restiano’s article in The Huffington Post, and read what else Peter had to say in PolicyMic.

Image: “At a Seminar” - Shutterstock

Schools: Brown University Tufts University