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Learning from Malcolm X

Maurice Isserman, history professor and chairman of the American Studies program at Hamilton College, wrote an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week that I felt really resonated with my post yesterday, and my general thoughts on free speech and transformational human experience over time. The title of his article was “In Ward Churchill Case, Who Defines ‘Acceptable’ Speech?” Here’s an excerpt:

I also wonder what would have happened if one of my faculty predecessors at Hamilton College had invited Malcolm X to speak back in the days when he was still alive—say, right after he made his “chickens coming home to roost” comment. Would he have been welcome here? From what I know of the history and traditions of the college, I believe he would have been allowed to speak. But I also suspect that then, as now, some trustees might have been upset; some alumni might have withheld contributions; some prospective students might have decided to apply elsewhere; and some irate media pundits would have fumed about the college’s willingness to provide a forum for the views of a thief, pimp, convict, and violent revolutionary who had just insulted the memory of a dead president….

The category of the unworthy varies with the eye of the beholder, and such categorical exclusions have been known to expand in unintended ways. Last semester a former felon was deemed unacceptable; this semester it’s someone who made an obnoxious comment. Malcolm would have passed neither test as a visitor to Hamilton.

At some point, pushed hard enough, I know we would all be prepared to mount the barricades in defense of free speech. We would all love to be called upon to defend Martin Luther King Jr., for example, or Susan B. Anthony, or William Lloyd Garrison, or perhaps even Malcolm X. The choices given faculty members and administrators at Hamilton College this year were unfortunately not so attractive. But when it comes to a judgment call between extending too much free speech or guaranteeing too little, the historical record suggests that we should err on the side of excess.

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