As a parent of a college student, I have come to have a renewed appreciation for the necessity of free speech as well as the importance for diversity of opinion on college campuses.
Donna Shalala, a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a former college president — and someone with whom I share very little in the way of political views — once said: “You can’t have a university without having free speech, even though at times it makes us terribly uncomfortable. If students are not going to hear controversial ideas on college campuses, they’re not going to hear them in America. I believe it’s part of their education.”
On this, I wholeheartedly agree with Shalala.
The desire by some on the campus of the University of Minnesota to restrict the ability of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to speak and be heard is, at one level, understandable. At another level, it is not just incongruous with, but perilous to, free speech.
I get it. Her opponents reject the policies Rice has supported. But my understanding of their rationale is not enough for me to support their goal of blocking the speech of one they disagree with — and the right of others who may agree or disagree with that speech to hear it.
Is Rice being paid a lot of money to give her speech? Yes. So are folks like former President Bill Clinton.
Are they worth it? I suppose, like many things, it’s in the eyes (and ears) of the beholder.
Should their speeches be paid with public dollars? Absolutely not. Rice is being paid with dollars raised by private individuals.
These issues cut both ways. No matter my opinion of him, I should no more attempt to block the presence of Clinton on campus than others should attempt to block the presence of former Secretary of State Rice.
Diversity of opinion and argument is good.
Perhaps, rather than attempting to shut down speech we don’t agree with, more of us should join our peers and friends and debate the ideas. Maybe we will agree on many. Disagree on more. But, when all is said and done, each of us will be better informed of the world around us, as well as the people who occupy it.
I am years from that bright-eyed college student enjoying all of the freedom and ideas of a college campus. However, I am the mom of a son who is now having those experiences, and I will soon have a daughter who will, as well. I want them to be able to learn from others — both those whom they agree with and those with whom they don’t.
Inherent in the rush by some to stop Rice from speaking is the ultimate question of why they should have the right to decide what ideas their peers on a college campus should be exposed to and what speech they should be allowed to hear. I suspect they would recoil in horror if a classmate of theirs with a differing opinion were given the right to randomly decide what ideas they would hear or whether they, themselves, would be given the right to protest that speaker’s words.
Is there ugly, venomous speech in the world in America? Are there groups and individuals whose ideas and rhetoric are so vile that it causes us to cringe and withdraw or even strike out?
Should we pay public dollars to afford those who seek to offend or cause harm to others the platform to do so?
In America, however, we also should not deprive them of their right to speak freely and openly. Nor should we deprive others of the right to choose to hear what they have to say, or simply ignore it.
Freedom of speech is far more powerful than any one idea or one person.
The real question for those opposing Rice, such as in the commentary printed in the Star Tribune’s Short Takes space on March 31 (“U must not endorse war crimes”), is that if the precedent is set and her speech is shut down, do you not think the next speech that could be shut down is yours?
That is not what college campuses should be about. On that I think we can all agree.
Laura Brod is a former Republican assistant majority leader in the Minnesota House of Representatives and is a current at-large elected member of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.