“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – First amendment to the United States Constitution
Freedom of speech is an interesting concept. It means that we have the right to speak out against political leaders and other members of society with whose ideas we disagree. That also means that they have the right to speak out against our political and social ideas. Yes, there are limits to this, but, in its ideal form, everyone is free to share their opinions, including those on the far-left and those on the far-right. That doesn’t protect people from repercussions: we are free not to support that person or organization. That includes everything from not watching a television program to refusing to eat at a restaurant because we disapprove of the opinions of the actor or owner. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be allowed to speak because otherwise someone might curtail our freedom of speech. For freedom of speech to work, it has to be for everyone.
This is why I was greatly disturbed to read about the behavior that occurred during a recent speech at the Stanford Law School. Stuart Kyle Duncan, a federal appeals court judge appointed by Donald Trump, was heckled and rudely interrupted during his speech. According to one news story, “one protester called for his daughters to be raped.” To be clear, I don’t approve of Duncan’s ideas or his former clients. He represented Hobby Lobby when the craft store didn’t want to offer its employees health insurance that included contraceptive care. He also called the Supreme Court decision to allow same sex marriage an “abject failure.” I disagree with many of his court rulings. But that doesn’t mean he should be barred from speaking about them. It makes sense that a law school would want to introduce its students to a variety of ways that our laws can be applied or interpreted.
Stanford students also have rights: they could have refused to attend his speech and encouraged others to do the same. Just because someone has freedom of speech doesn’t mean that anyone has to listen to him. They could also have protested outside the building where he was speaking to let him and others know that they find his opinions unacceptable. In addition, they could support organizations that work against the ideas that Duncan supports.
Stopping him from speaking, however, did nothing to help the causes these students support. It just made people sympathize with Duncan and his ideas. News about what occurred has spread across newspapers and the Internet (which is how I found out about it) and turned what would have otherwise been an ignored event into a prize for those who support Duncan’s ideas. After all, they can say, look at the behavior of those who disagree with him: they are bullies who are destroying our society.
This is about more than just one speaker and speech. Those of us who know about the McCarthy era in the United States – when expressing a leftist opinion could cause the loss of employment, blacklisting and ostracism – don’t want to see the return of those days. Think it doesn’t matter because your opinions will be the ones in ascendance? The political pendulum swings both ways: freedom of speech has to work for everyone or it works for no one.