Dozens of students at the University of Notre Dame walk out of their commencement ceremony, just as Vice President Mike Pence begins to speak. Noted political scientist Charles Murray is forced off stage by protestors at Middlebury College, who don’t even allow him to speak. Controversial author Ann Coulter’s speaking engagement at the University of California-Berkeley is canceled, after the mere extension of an invitation triggers violent protests. The list goes on. It seems that lots of people on college campuses don’t want to hear what others think or say — and in many cases, they don’t want anyone else to either. As people of faith and as Americans — in that order — this should compel us to speak up for free speech and to pray for our country.
Blessed and Burdened
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), American universities have disinvited scheduled speakers at least 30 times (with 54 attempted disinvitations) in 2016 and 2017 — and we’re just seven months into 2017. But that doesn’t capture the whole picture: According to FIRE’s Disinvitation Database, there have been 342 attempted or successful disinvitations on college campuses since 2000. In 2000 and 2001, there were 10 attempted disinvitations total; only one was successful.
Those numbers demonstrate that the problem is getting worse; the number of attempted disinvitations is increasing each year. The situation is so bad that the University of Wisconsin has started an annual Disinvited Dinner to promote “freedom of inquiry” and cast a light on how “university leaders and ideologically zealous students often abridge this freedom.”
The best antidote to offensive ideas and abusive words is exposing them to the light, forcing them to compete in the arena of ideas, and challenging people of goodwill to respond.
Indeed, FIRE reports that 49.3 percent of universities surveyed “maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free-speech rights of students.” The Atlantic adds that “69 percent of college students support disciplinary action against either students or faculty members who use intentionally offensive language.”
That word “offensive” is a tricky and subjective one. Full disclosure: Much of what Ann Coulter says —and especially how she says it — offends me. And that may offend some of you. But you and I recognize there’s nothing in the Constitution ensuring a right not to be offended. We are blessed and sometimes burdened by freedom of speech, but there’s no such thing as freedom from speech.
The University of Chicago wrestled with this issue back in 1967, concluding that “a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.” To its credit, the school understands that free societies depend on the free exchange of ideas, opinions, and beliefs. That presupposes the use of words — uplifting words, upsetting words, even offensive words. The First Amendment not only allows for that — it encourages it.
Why? Perhaps it’s because the Founders understood that the best antidote to offensive ideas and abusive words is exposing them to the light, forcing them to compete in the arena of ideas, and challenging people of goodwill to respond.
Today, many don’t hold to such a philosophy. Today, when some citizens come across ideas they find offensive, a speaker who challenges their worldview, a TV show or film they don’t like, they organize boycotts, shout people down, threaten decision-makers — and if they still don’t get their way, they sometimes riot. Consider the mayhem at Middlebury: After allowing students to scream for some 20 minutes, the moderator asked, “Can you just listen for one minute?” The mob that had hijacked the event shouted, “No!” So, the organizers surrendered and escorted Murray offstage. But the freedom-from-speech mob persisted. They chased after Murray and event organizers, surrounded their car, “pounded on it, rocked it back and forth, jumped onto the hood,” and assaulted a professor, who was hospitalized with neck injuries.
When most of us encounter speakers, programs, films, or ideas we find offensive, we turn the channel, choose not to attend the event, attempt to offer our own ideas, and sometimes engage in debate. Sadly, freedom-from-speech supporters are now unwilling to engage in civil discourse. Subsequently, as college administrators banish certain speakers, as universities ban certain words (see here, here, here, here and here), as young adults refuse to listen to opposing views and prevent others from hearing them, we are producing a generation of people who are incapable of developing, let alone defending, their own beliefs.
It is by thoughtfully sharing and considering ideas that individuals develop and strengthen their beliefs. Ideas, beliefs, and opinions are like muscle: they need to be tested and pushed. When they’re not, they atrophy. When that happens, people will be swayed by anything, or unable to consider anything that challenges their own views, or worst of all, unwilling to allow others to say or hear things with which they disagree.
That’s worrisome, given that today’s college students are tomorrow’s leaders. “If students are denied the opportunity to see for themselves that the world is full of people who don’t think as they do,” as University of Pennsylvania professor Rafael Walker observes, “they will be inestimably less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship … If colleges do anything to prepare future generations for effective citizenship, it will not be through the bubbles they erect around their campuses.”
A Biblical Perspective on Words
Without question, words can wound and leave lasting scars. Perhaps that’s why James counseled “those who consider themselves religious” to “keep a tight rein on their tongues.” If not, words can destroy like fire and deadly poison.
That helps explain why Paul’s letter to the Ephesians calls on Christ followers to speak the truth — but always in and with love. Put another way, Christ followers should speak caringly and considerately, but the given is that we must speak.
As with so much of the Christian life, intent and motive are as important as action. Our intent in sharing our beliefs should never be to offend. However, if our beliefs happen to offend, that doesn’t mean sharing them is wrong. In fact, it may mean we’re doing exactly what Jesus expects of us. We’re bound to offend when we challenge the beliefs of others. Paul, who noted that the cross itself is an offense to many, seemed to make a living out of offending people: religious leaders, political power brokers, and his fellow apostles found themselves on the sharp end of Paul’s pointed words.
In that passage from Ephesians, it’s intriguing that Paul seems to link “speaking the truth in love” to a kind of emotional maturity and discernment — the very characteristics so many college campuses are smothering by disallowing the exchange of ideas and disinviting controversial speakers.
Given what’s happening in our culture, it’s tempting to dust off our sandals and retreat from the world. But scripture points us in a different direction.
“The real business of your life as a saved soul,” as Oswald Chambers wrote more than a century ago, “is intercessory prayer.” Most of us think of this as interceding for the lost, and understandably so. But it can also mean interceding for our nation. Indeed, Jeremiah instructed God’s people — displaced and far from home — to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” In a similar vein, Paul urges us as “Christ’s ambassadors” to pray for those in authority, for decision-makers, for those charged with administering the law — which in this country includes protecting free speech.
In addition to praying for our nation and our neighbors, we should speak out and speak up. It pays to recall that Paul — encouraged by the Lord — never stopped speaking and writing, even though all sorts of people tried to muzzle him. Paul understood that there is no commandment against offending someone. He knew that Moses offended Pharaoh, Samuel offended Saul, Nathan offended David. And he knew that Jesus offended the comfortable, infuriated the religious, flummoxed the powerful and shocked even the faithful.
The purpose here is not to equate today’s victims of campus conformity with the heroes of scripture, but rather to draw lessons from the stories of scripture.
For example, Paul once attended a meeting of the Athens city council, where he tried to explain the Good News. In response, “some of them sneered,” and only “a few” believed. There’s a hard lesson in this for us. If even Paul was unable to persuade people of the truth, then we shouldn’t be surprised or discouraged when we are unable. Our task is to keep speaking the truth — in love.
Of course, it seems Paul had one advantage that’s in diminishing supply on college campuses today: The Athens city council at least allowed him to speak.
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.