In defense of free speech

President of California State University, Chico

Freedom of speech is not hated just by terrorists, as President Bush said in his most recent address to Congress. It is also hated by some Americans, as evidenced by events on the CSU, Chico campus.

Political science Professor George Wright was invited to talk at a campus candlelight vigil after the terrorist attacks. He is a harsh critic of U.S. foreign policy, and like other people in attendance he was emotional in his remarks. He lashed out at President Bush, saying he was continuing policies that militarized the Middle East and sought to capture foreign oil reserves. Some people shouted at him as he spoke. Others hugged him afterwards.

His remarks were reported in the Enterprise-Record, then echoed in an essay he wrote for the News & Review ["Going down the wrong path,” Essay, Sept. 20]. His comments were posted on various Web pages and eventually picked up by national media, such as the Wall Street Journal and Fox News.

Professor Wright received more than 100 pieces of hate e-mail, including death threats. Not surprisingly, Professor Wright chose to stay away from home at times, watch his movements and keep in touch with the local police.

We all have strong feelings right now, especially anger. That is the reason Professor Wright spoke out as he did, in a way that in hindsight he realizes was probably excessive. And that is the reason he prompted such a fiery response. The horrific terrorist attacks left us with no living perpetrators and only a shadowy mastermind; we have a tremendous urge to find the enemy somewhere, anywhere, and strike at him.

But we as a people must not vent our anger to the extent that we threaten those of us who take a contrary view. In this time of crisis, we cannot toss out our Constitution and exclude citizens who choose to disagree with the majority. As we do so, we grow to resemble the terrorists who would tear us apart.

Most people may view Professor Wright’s comments as inappropriate, insensitive or just plain wrong. But we must, as Americans, bear to hear them. They are protected by the First Amendment.

Schools and universities often are a target for people who can’t stand contrary views. I find it particularly tragic that women are forbidden to pursue even a secondary education under the Taliban regime. Those leaders have a catastrophic fear of what any opposing view might be. On the other hand, we believe that all students, men and women, benefit from exposure to a diversity of opinions.

It is easy to defend freedom of speech when that expression coincides with our own or that of the vast majority. It is far more virtuous, significant, important and necessary to defend freedom of expression when it puts forth views opposite to our own. First Amendment protection has made our nation strong and the envy of the civilized world. We have in the past, we will in the future, and we must now protect this right.

To quote President Bush’s address: "I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here. We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them."