Free speech its own safe space

The Daily Herald - - OPINION -

Two news items, which at first glance might ap­pear un­re­lated, de­serve some fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion.

One was the re­fusal of San Francisco 49ers quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick to stand with the rest of his team dur­ing the play­ing of the na­tional an­them prior to Fri­day night’s pre­sea­son game against the Green Bay Pack­ers. Fol­low­ing the game, Kaeper­nick ex­plained his de­ci­sion to NFL Me­dia, say­ing in part: “I am not go­ing to stand up to show pride in a flag for a coun­try that op­presses black peo­ple and peo­ple of color.”

Kaeper­nick knew the de­ci­sion would in­vite a back­lash. In fact, he counted on it; why protest if no­body’s pay­ing at­ten­tion? The ob­jec­tions came from foot­ball fans, fel­low play­ers, pun­dits and oth­ers. Drew Brees, quar­ter­back of the New Or­leans Saints, for ex­am­ple, sup­ported Kaper­nick’s right to speak out on an im­por­tant is­sue, but ob­jected to his method of protest: “… there’s plenty of other ways that you can do that in a peace­ful man­ner that doesn’t in­volve be­ing dis­re­spect­ful to the Amer­i­can flag,” he told ESPN.

The other news item in­volves a let­ter sent by the dean of stu­dents at the Univer­sity of Chicago to its in­com­ing fresh­men, as re­ported in The New York Times.

In re­sponse to re­cent con­tro­ver­sies at other col­leges over the can­cel­la­tion of speeches by con­tro­ver­sial speak­ers or top­ics and de­mands to pro­tect stu­dents from speech they might find ob­jec­tion­able, the dean, John El­li­son, made the Illi­nois col­lege’s po­si­tion clear: “Our com­mit­ment to aca­demic free­dom means that we do not sup­port so-called trig­ger warn­ings, we do not can­cel in­vited speak­ers be­cause their top­ics might prove con­tro­ver­sial, and we do not con­done the cre­ation of in­tel­lec­tual ‘safe spa­ces’ where in­di­vid­u­als can re­treat from ideas and per­spec­tives at odds with their own.”

The dean’s state­ment shouldn’t be taken to mean that pro­fes­sors and the school it­self would tol­er­ate abu­sive be­hav­ior and don’t have ex­pec­ta­tions for civil treat­ment and re­spect for all in class­rooms and else­where on cam­pus. But the let­ter does give full re­spect for aca­demic free­dom, the free ex­change of ideas and hon­ors the na­tion’s First Amend­ment rights.

It’s just that no­body seems to be con­nect­ing the dots be­tween the two events.

The Her­itage Foun­da­tion, a con­ser­va­tive think tank in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, for ex­am­ple, ob­jected to Kaeper­nick’s re­fusal to honor the flag by shar­ing a Na­tional Re­view post on its Face­book page, ask­ing oth­ers to “share if you al­ways stand for the na­tional an­them.” Ear­lier, again on its Face­book page, the foun­da­tion said the let­ter from the Univer­sity of Chicago dean’s let­ter “will make you stand up and cheer.”

Safe spa­ces, then, are OK in the eyes of the Her­itage Foun­da­tion and oth­ers if we’re rop­ing off foot­ball sta­di­ums to pro­tect fans and play­ers from the ob­jec­tion­able sight of some­one not stand­ing to honor the flag.

Look­ing at the other side of the coin, there are plenty who likely rushed to de­fend Kaeper­nick and in the next breath would have crit­i­cized the dean’s let­ter.

With free speech comes the risk that we open our­selves to be­ing of­fended, to be­ing con­fronted by ideas with which we don’t agree. When that hap­pens, our re­sponse as Amer­i­cans re­quires us not to sti­fle what’s be­ing said but to speak up.

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