RECENTLY, THE BANNER OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH was raised high across academe, including on our very own Chapel Hill campus, in defense of Duke Law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. And, in the end, he got his deanship in California.
But espousing free speech for people who think the way we do is not really espousing free speech. Does anybody actually think that liberals are more likely to be denied academic jobs because of their political views? Anybody?
So, who should UNC academics be defending? I think they should be fighting for the un-liberal evangelists who were recently evicted from the Pit, the University of North Carolina campus equivalent of Hyde Park in London.
I'm not a big fan of the Pit preachers, in general, because as they preach sin and repentance while challenging passers-by with their version of Christianity they tend to be abrasive, abusive and thus more likely to keep people from Jesus than draw them to him.
I think that evangelical Christians who don't believe that "Satan says that God loves everyone" (as one of the Pit preachers' signs reportedly said) have more reason to wish such preachers would go away than the atheists, Satanists and LGBTIQ folks. Their preaching style is so generally offensive that it pushes many more people away from the Gospel than it pulls to it, creating sympathy for groups and behaviors that many might otherwise find problematic.
But, you know what? Speech is only free when the speech that we hate is just as free as the speech we love.
To the best I can figure the only thing that happened in the Pit the day the evangelists were evicted is that a loud shouting match took place. During my 14 years on the UNC campus, vociferous shouting matches between some of the more provocative Pit preachers and their audiences were practically a daily occurrence. I never saw anyone "led off campus."
I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for four years, a place more liberal, if such be possible, than UNC-Chapel Hill. A place that was second only, at one time in the 1960's, to the University of California at Berkeley as the head of the "free speech" movement.
By the time I got to Madison in the 1980's, the worm had turned --180 degrees. The primary speech concern was "hate speech," that is, speech that offended some particular demographic group.
The ultimate solution at UW was a speech code. The way a speech code works is this: White supremacists, for example, could promote any idea they like as long as it was not something anyone found offensive, like, say, white supremacy.
Why a speech code was necessary is beyond me. There was already an informal "speech beats speech" policy in effect. I am sure you are thinking: That's the way it should be. The free exchange of ideas and, in the end, the best ideas will win out. Good ideas trump bad ones. Solid rational arguments triumph over flimsy fallacious ones. Truth defeats lies. Sorry. That's not how it worked.
During that time period in Madison, controversial speakers with offensive philosophies (that is to say, any conservative) were simply shouted down. Not questioned and found wanting. Not out debated. Not presented with points they could not refute. Simply shouted down. Not given a chance to even present their own ideas -- which may have been silly, stupid, puerile, inane, evil or just plain wrong (in someone's opinion) -- not that we would ever know because we never got to hear them.
UNC Campus Police would have made life for the pre-speech-code goons of Madison much easier. Now, it is apparent, to silence any public voice all that UNC "students" have to do is start a shouting match. Campus cops will do the rest.
My question: Why weren't the "students" who were shouting with the evangelists also led off campus? UNC is a public university, last I heard. If there was a shouting match that had to be stopped, how was it determined who was at fault?
The evangelists were "escorted" off campus "for the safety of all those involved," said a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, quoted in the Daily Tar Heel. One of the evangelists was quoted as saying that "there was no threat to security." It seems he should know whether he is safe or not.
Here’s an idea. Let’s let the Pit preachers preach, loudly if they like. Let’s let those who disagree with them argue with them if they like, loudly if it suits them. Let’s take the Department of Public Safety off the "silence speech we don’t like" beat.
Question: If the next anti-war rally in the Pit draws loud counter protesters, will campus police escort the anti-war ralliers off campus? Just wondering.
Gary D. Gaddy listens to Stephanie Miller and Rush Limbaugh; both tend to shout.
A version of this article was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Thrusday, September 27, 2007. Copyright 2007 Gary D. Gaddy