Let Them Speak! Why It’s Important to Let Speakers Speak

Joshua Bridges

Students who shout down speakers they disagree with are not just impolite. They misunderstand what being a college student is all about.

Shutting down discourse on American campuses by protest is an old tactic, born in the 1960s and perfected in the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. However, there are other forms of protest, some of which are more respectful and leave the speaker free to pursue his argument.

Consider the manner in which members of William Paterson University’s class of 2011 protested the cuts to higher education funding in New Jersey by the Christie administration. At the 2011 commencement ceremony, as Christie’s lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno spoke, over 100 graduating seniors stood and turned their backs to her, some cupping their hands over their ears. Though Guadagno endured a smattering of boos and heckles from family members and guests, the protesting graduates were completely silent. In her speech, Guadagno herself commented favorably on their behavior: “It’s their right to do so. I applaud them for doing it in a polite way.”

Protests of this kind are preferable to protests like the one which marked Ray Kelly’s appearance this past October at Brown University, where he was scheduled to deliver a lecture on “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City.”

Kelly barely had time to greet the audience at Brown’s arts center before people throughout the audience immediately rose from their seats, raised their fists in the air, and began shouting in unison, protesting what they believed to be the Commissioner’s racist policies, particularly stop and frisk.

For the next twenty minutes, the protesters continued to disrupt Kelly’s speech. One after another, individual protesters stood up and shouted over Kelly, some with prepared statements written on index cards. Pleas from university administrators to let him speak were unsuccessful. At one point, an exasperated Kelly said, “I thought this was the academy, where we’re supposed to have free speech.”

After enduring shouted interruptions and impromptu lectures by the protesters in the room, Kelly gave up and left.

Protests of this kind have no place on college campuses. Obviously, interrupting or disrupting someone’s speech is just plain rude; allowing an invited speaker to have the floor is polite. But in the university much more than politeness and rudeness is at stake. Politeness, a lost art on most American campuses today, must be recovered as a main feature of university life, because it is foundational for the pursuit of rational exchange.   

Listening to controversial speakers allows for ideas to be fully and properly considered. It is only through such consideration that one discovers truth. As John Stuart Mill writes in On Liberty (1860), fringe ideas often contain elements of truth. Truth itself frequently occupies the middle ground between competing opinions. The tactics used by the Brown protesters did not just silence Kelly, they obstructed the other students in attendance from hearing his arguments and perhaps asking a question in return. The tactics of the William Paterson students, on the other hand, forcefully demonstrated their position without silencing Guadagno or interfering with those who wanted to hear her.

Whether or not the opinions of Kelly and Guadagno are fringe ideas is a matter of opinion. But that doesn’t change the fact that refusing to listen to them has serious consequences. Shouting someone down goes against the natural code of a university. A university is meant to be a place where a student hones his tools of philosophical consideration, the skills by which he discerns what is true and what is false.

The way to do this is through practice, by considering well-reasoned arguments. As a longtime public servant who holds a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and two law degrees, Ray Kelly is certainly capable of providing such an argument, of establishing a thesis and supporting it with evidence, that listeners could comprehend and evaluate.

Unfortunately, he never got the opportunity to do so. By silencing certain ideas on a university campus, a place where the pursuit of truth and, by extension, free inquiry should be paramount, the protesters at Brown sabotaged their own intellectual development. And that is a crying shame.

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