Spooked by the power of words, words, words

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - BY WES­LEY PRU­DEN Wes­ley Pru­den is ed­i­tor in chief emer­i­tus of The Times.

The only thing any­one is al­lowed to hear on cam­pus is a slo­gan. Think­ing is so 20th cen­tury (and early 20th cen­tury at that). The adults paid to be in charge have re­treated to a safe place, where never is heard an en­cour­ag­ing word and the skies are cloudy all day. The First Amend­ment has been un­der the lat­est as­sault for months, and this week Howard Dean, the for­mer gover­nor of Ver­mont and one­time chair­man of the Demo­cratic party, fi­nally said out loud what cer­tain prom­i­nent Democrats have hinted at and al­luded to, that free speech does not nec­es­sar­ily in­clude ex­tend­ing it to any­one who dis­agrees with them.

This poi­son spread, like so much of the toxic stuff pol­lut­ing the body politic, from the cam­puses of the elite. Par­tic­u­larly the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, where vis­it­ing speak­ers with some­thing to say can’t say it be­cause it might of­fend the sopho­more class. Cow­ardice rules in the univer­sity pres­i­dent’s of­fice and ig­no­rance rules in Sproul Plaza. A speech by Ann Coulter, the fire­brand colum­nist, was can­celled be­cause every­one was afraid of what she might say.

Miss Coulter, a slen­der woman who might weigh 90 pounds step­ping out of a shower, was ea­ger to take her chances fac­ing down the mob to say her piece, what­ever that piece might have been, but the Berke­ley cops, the univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tion, the spon­sor­ing Young Amer­ica’s Foun­da­tion and the Col­lege Repub­li­cans, all trem­bled, looked one way and then the other, and took a pow­der lest the hooded brown­shirts — dressed in black with rob­bers’ masks, ac­tu­ally — dis­rupt the tran­quil­ity of the cam­pus.

The ed­i­tors of Na­tional Re­view mag­a­zine ob­served with a bit of acid that Janet Napoli­tano, the pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Sys­tem, was Barack Obama’s Di­rec­tor of Home­land Se­cu­rity and was re­spon­si­ble for keep­ing al-Qaeda out of New York and Wash­ing­ton, but she can’t se­cure a lec­ture hall on a Cal­i­for­nia col­lege cam­pus.

But even in de­fend­ing free speech and all that free speech means, the ed­i­tors pref­aced their con­dem­na­tion of cow­ardice and out­rage at Berke­ley with some­thing of an apol­ogy for de­fend­ing Miss Coulter: “We have had our dif­fer­ences with Ann Coulter over the years, dif­fer­ences that led to our even­tu­ally de­clin­ing to con­tinue pub­lish­ing her work. She is charm­ing and funny and some­times bril­liant. She is also a glib and ir­re­spon­si­ble self-pro­moter. We sus­pect that she will not like hav­ing that writ­ten about her. We sus­pect that she might write some­thing in re­ply.” But the ed­i­tors think it is nev­er­the­less wrong, or at least in­ap­pro­pri­ate, to chase her off the cam­pus. Prob­a­bly.

Howard Dean likes free speech and the First Amend­ment well enough, but with ap­pro­pri­ate ed­its and the

Janet Napoli­tano

proper emen­da­tions. He looked at the work of the Found­ing Fathers with a physi­cian’s eye and saw that the guar­an­tee was not ab­so­lute, as the Found­ing Fathers thought it was. The amend­ment does not pro­tect “hate speech,” which he thinks is any­thing un­pleas­ant for a good fel­low like him to hear.

The Found­ing Fathers thought they suc­ceeded in writ­ing the guar­an­tee in stark, plain English — so plain and so clear, in fact, that even a lawyer could un­der­stand it: “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.” No ifs, ands, or buts, and not a sin­gle whereas. Noth­ing there about hate speech, ex­clu­sions, preclu­sions or ex­cep­tions.

This gives some peo­ple pal­pi­ta­tions. It’s no mys­tery why such peo­ple are in­vari­ably at the likes of Berke­ley and Yale and Mid­dle­bury. You’re not as likely to see or hear pro­posed foot­notes to the First Amend­ment at the likes of South­east North Dakota State, Utah A&M or Oua­chita Bap­tist Col­lege.

“In First Amend­ment law,” says Glenn Har­lan Reynolds, the dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor of con­sti­tu­tional law at the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee, “the term ‘hate speech’ is mean­ing­less. All speech is equally pro­tected whether it’s hate­ful or cheer­ful. It doesn’t mat­ter if it’s racist, sex­ist or in poor taste, un­less speech falls into a few very nar­row cat­e­gories — like ‘true threats,’ which have to ad­dress a spe­cific in­di­vid­ual, or ‘in­cite­ment,’ which must con­sti­tute an im­me­di­ate and in­ten­tional en­cour­age­ment to im­mi­nent law­less ac­tion — it’s pro­tected.”

There’s a rea­son why the Founders put the First Amend­ment first. It’s the most im­por­tant part of the Con­sti­tu­tion, and as im­por­tant as the rest of the Bill of Rights is, the First Amend­ment is the most im­por­tant. With free speech, the peo­ple are armed to pro­tect all other rights. With­out it, the peo­ple are dis­armed, and tyrants, the vile and ig­no­rant like the stu­dents on cer­tain cam­puses among us, rule. We al­low that at our deadly peril.


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