Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: Tolerating the intolerable — the price of free speech

There’s a well-known political and philosophical paradox that goes like this: If a society is entirely tolerant of all, including those who are intolerant (you may consider Nazis as an example,) it will soon fall to the intolerant forces and become, itself, intolerant. In other words, nothing and no one — not even the United States, which likens itself somewhat of a free speech mecca — can actually remain completely and utterly tolerant of all speech, ideologies, movements and beliefs. 

This paradox is especially relevant in the context of free speech versus hate speech — a debate that often rears its head on  college campuses. 

Just last month, this debate was nationalized after a Trump-appointed judge — Stuart Kyle Duncan — was invited by Stanford Law School’s Federalist Society to speak at the University.

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The speech didn’t go too well: hundreds of student protestors heckled the judge, causing such a din that the judge could barely be heard. Duncan also attests that he heard protestors call for his daughters to be raped.

Duncan, meanwhile, entered the space taking videos of protesting students, making sure to capture close-ups of their faces. He repeatedly told students — at one of the top law schools in the country — that they were an “appalling idiot.” Upon asking for an administrator to calm down the crowd, Tirien Steinbach, the associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion (and a Black woman), approached Duncan — to which he incredulously asked “You’re an administrator?” 

Most egregiously, during Duncan’s tenure as a judge, he has regularly and fiercely fought against same-sex marriage, gay adoptions, transgender children, abortion access, vaccine regulations and more. 

Duncan was not only clearly pugnacious and hostile during the speaking event itself, but he consistently uses his judicial position, one with inordinate power, to oppress and discriminate against multiple protected classes — members of the LGBTQ+ community and women most especially. 

This is just one situation, but it is also a microcosm of the larger discussion surrounding tolerance of free speech: Is allowing a powerful, privileged elite — one who directly uses his power and privilege to trample on the rights of his fellow Americans — to speak, tolerating the intolerable? 

If we continue down the path of granting everyone (from white supremacists to insurrectionists to sexual assaulters to war criminals) the ability to speak and assemble freely, whip up support and slowly put their words to action, will we be overtaken by them? 

Even more fundamentally, who is the victim of intolerance here?  Duncan — or Ben Shapiro or Michael Knowles or Matt Walsh — who are often harassed for speaking, or the students who are being directly discriminated against by these men and their ilk? 

There is no one, easy answer. 

When conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro came to Boston University in 2019, he was met with perhaps the most ideal circumstances a right-wing speaker could expect at a left-leaning institution. An audience of 1,500 welcomed him, while a few hundred students marched down Commonwealth Ave., protesting the conservative commentator’s presence on campus. 

This counterview was apparently not acceptable to Shapiro who snarkily remarked: “No thanks to the leftists who sought to have this lecture canceled out of apparent fear of my wretched evil…who wrote that BU should ban me to protect its students from me. Look at me. Saying things.”

Freedom of speech is a right against legal repercussions, not against social consequences. Duncan shouldn’t be thrown in jail for speaking against the LGBTQ+ community — but he is not and should not be legally protected from the commentary of those he seeks to oppress. 

The same is true for Shapiro — if he chooses to give a lecture titled “America Was Not Built On Slavery, It Was Built On Freedom,” he must accept protestors’ signs reading “Whose Freedom” and “Racism Kills.”

Schools, organizations and especially governmental institutions should not be threatened or coerced into disallowing speech. Let Duncan speak at Stanford, Shapiro lecture at BU and Mike Pence give the commencement speech at Notre Dame — but also let students protest, march, boycott or walk out without complaining about marginalization from liberals or the revocation of the First Amendment. 

If women, people of color, immigrants, incarcerated people, low-income people or LGBTQ+ people tolerate the intolerance of judges and politicians, those judges and politicians can — and must — tolerate our intolerance as well.

As lawyer and journalist Elie Mystal wrote regarding the Stanford incident: “Everybody has the right to speak. Nobody has the right to be heard over the din of the crowd.”

This editorial was written by Opinion Editor Caroline McCord.

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