A couple of essays ago, I wrote about the millions who marched in Paris to express their support for freedom of speech. It was an impressive show.
The French say they support freedom of expression. Really? Why, then¸ did Bob Dylan run afoul of the French courts for something he uttered publicly in 2012. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he said, “If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood.”
Before you could say, Je Suis Charlie,” some of Dylan’s Croatian fans expressed their outrage. That, in turn, prompted the Council of Croats in France to file a formal complaint. Dylan was then charged in a French court with inciting hatred with his remarks. If he had been convicted, he could have faced a one year prison sentence and a fine of up to $62,000. So much for freedom of expression, eh?
Dylan escaped the clutches of the court on a technicality. He hadn’t given his consent for Rolling Stone to publish his remarks. But, it hasn’t ended there. The court ordered the director of the French edition of the magazine to stand trial for publishing the remarks.
I think it’s time to remind the French there are times when the physician needs to heal himself.
Of course, we on this side of the Atlantic do the freedom of expression thing better than the rest of the world. Right?
I’d be willing to be if I were to walk around Emporia and ask people whether or not they supported the principle of free expression, an overwhelming majority would say they did. But, do we truly support the principle? Or, do we just give it lip service?
It wasn’t so long ago that Kansas University professor David Guth got the National Rifle Association lathered up with the following inflammatory tweet he submitted in the aftermath of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut: “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”
It didn’t take long from the time Professor Guth submitted the tweet till the university placed him on administrative leave, where he stayed for seven months.
I’ve been on many college campuses over the years. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that the academic environment is all about free expression and dialogue, even when some of the ideas being expressed are out of step with those currently in vogue or ideas that most of us would find abhorrent. Too many to count, I think. The sentiment is noble, but it’s far from being true. In a 2014 report on speech codes on college campuses, for example, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that “nearly 60% of the 427 colleges and universities analyzed maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.”
But, it’s not always students who are censored by academia. In 2014, Brandeis University rescinded an offer to Somali born Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree. Why was the offer rescinded? The Council of Islamic American Relations had complained to the university. In his communication to Ms. Hirsi, Brandeis president Frederick Lawrence said, “certain of her past statements” were inconsistent with the university’s “core values” because they were "Islamophobic.” In May of last year, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was invited to be the commencement speaker at Rutgers University. Some students complained about Ms. Rice’s work in the Bush administration during the Iraq War. They used their free speech rights in the campus newspaper to keep her from exercising her free speech rights to speak at the commencement. She decided to decline the offer the university had made. In her letter explaining her decision, she wrote, “Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families.”
Someone had to take the high road.
Freedom of expression is always going to be a dicey issue. Nowadays, almost anything we say or think is bound to offend someone. And, when those times come, there will always be someone who is willing to use his or her free speech rights to shout their opponent down or use administrative levers to squelch the things they don’t want to hear. More importantly, they want to prevent others from hearing and making up their own minds about what’s being said. I’ve seen it happen in public meetings I’ve attended here. I’ve even seen some of our paragons of public virtue attempt to squelch voices they don’t want us to hear.
As I’ve said before, it’s easy to say we support freedom of expression. But I think there’s a huge gap between what we say and what we practice. Maybe, as with the French, it’s time for us to tell ourselves, “physician, heal thyself.”