Column: Freedom of Religion, Speech must be Protected

December 6, 2015

By Linda J. White at Fredericksburg.com

Dec. 15 marks 224 years since the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Can we hang onto it a while longer?

Sometimes I wonder. We seem all too eager to toss our freedoms away by limiting thinking, speech and beliefs with which we disagree.

What prompted my last head-shaking session was the loud, angry protest at a meeting on Nov. 17, at which the Islamic Center of Fredericksburg was outlining its plans for a new mosque. The meeting got so raucous a sheriff’s deputy had to send everyone home.

I’m happy to report there was a subsequent outpouring of support for the Muslim group, but I wonder, did the protesters somehow skip civics? U.S. history? Does “freedom of religion” not ring a bell?

Remember Thanksgiving? The Pilgrims took the perilous journey to the New World for religious freedom. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (precursor to the Bill of Rights), wrote, “… it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

On founding the University of Virginia, he wrote, “we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

George Washington, addressing the America’s oldest Jewish congregation, the Touro Synagogue in Newport R.I., said, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship. … May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

The “Stock of Abraham” includes Muslims. The Islamic Center of Fredericksburg should have to undergo the same scrutiny that a Baptist (or Catholic or Mormon) congregation would. No more, no less. That’s freedom.

I don’t have room to catalog all the threats to our liberty these days, but let me just address one other: Freedom of speech, specifically on college campuses.

Fortunately, “liberal” academia is quick to defend freedom (“liber” is Latin for “free”), right? Especially free speech. After all, aren’t colleges all about the robust exchange of ideas?

Not so much. This is evident in two areas. One, documented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is the “disinvitation” rate. Speakers who run afoul of politically correct groupthink have been “disinvited” or hounded off the stage at an increasing rate in recent years. FIRE cites Smith College for withdrawing a speaking invitation to Christine Lagarde, first woman to head the International Monetary Fund. Rutgers embarrassed former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice until she backed away from an invitation to speak. Brandeis University offered, then withdrew, an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirst Ali, who criticized Islam.

Apparently, today’s crop of college kids is just too fragile to deal with ideas and opinions that may conflict with their own. So they have to ban speakers from campus—or shout them down.

But that’s not all, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write in the September issue of The Atlantic in an article “The Coddling of the American Mind.” At colleges all across the country, speech that might potentially offend, or that might trigger anxiety in a person, is being banned. So at Harvard Law School, for example, students have asked that professors not teach rape law, or even use the term “violated” (as in, “that violated the law”) lest a person dealing with sexual abuse be emotionally triggered.

College literature professors are supposed to put “trigger warnings” on certain books. For example, they’re supposed to warn students that “The Great Gatsby” contains misogyny and physical abuse.

Seriously? Reading a classic American novel is that traumatic?

California, as usual, pushes this hypersensitivity program to the extreme.

Administrators in the 10 state-university campuses have issued a list of “micro-aggressions” to deans and other campus leaders. These microaggressions are small statements that may “harm” students, even if unintentionally. For example, asking an Asian or Latino student where he or she was born is a microaggression, because it might imply they were not born in the United States. These statements are also microaggressions: “America is the land of opportunity,” and, “I think the most qualified person should get the job.”

Really.

But as Haidt points out, “real life demands engagement with people whose ideas we may find offensive.” True education fosters critical thinking—learning to ground one’s opinions in facts. That pretty much demands the expression of and argumentation over opposing ideas. Are college kids too fragile to do that? What will they be like in the workplace?

Those who truly understand freedom know that the speech that is most obnoxious to you is the speech most worth defending. The Bill of Rights makes this country truly exceptional. We toss out the liberty it codifies at our own peril.

Schools: University of Virginia