We remember when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was hit by a rock in Chicago’s Marquette Park in 1966. Somebody didn’t want to hear what he had to say.
That, above all else, is why we feel firmly that if a professor at the University of Chicago has invited the odious nationalist Steve Bannon to speak on campus, then Bannon should be allowed to speak on campus. Intolerance for free speech can cut both ways. Once speech is suppressed, who decides?
We remember as well when the odious red-baiter Sen. Joe McCarthy accused everybody and their sainted mother of being a Communist, a devastating allegation in the 1950s. That, too, is why we are sure that since Bannon has been invited to speak, he should be allowed to do so.
What finally took McCarthy down, turning him into a national embarrassment, was not shutting him up, but revealing him for what he was. Most notably, in a televised Senate hearing in 1954, McCarthy went too far, accusing a young lawyer by name of working for a “Communist front” group. This led to a historic take-down by Joseph N. Welch, chief counsel for the United States Army:
“Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
The gallery erupted in applause, and it was the beginning of the end for Tail-gunner Joe.
If Bannon and the hard-right nationalist movement he represents are bad for America, as we are sure they are, the only acceptable response in an open democracy is not to shut him up, but to show him up.
More than 1,000 former students of the University of Chicago have signed a letter to the university’s president, Robert Zimmer, and provost, Daniel Diermeier, stating that allowing Bannon to speak on campus would damage the university’s reputation.
“Stephen Bannon seeks to silence dissenting voices of large portions of society,” their letter states in part. “Denying him a platform to speak at our university does not restrict our environment of fearless freedom of debate and deliberation; rather, it protects that environment.”
Nonsense. Of course it restricts the university’s “environment of fearless freedom.”
The sorry truth is that Bannon is far from an outlier in mainstream American politics. His anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, implicitly racist views are shared today by much of the Republican Party. If the university bans Bannon from speaking, we see no logical reason it will not also ban Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Sen. Ted Cruz, at least half the talking heads on Fox News and President Donald Trump.
And the shutting down will not end there. It will work its way into the classroom, as many professors at American universities say it already has.
As Peter Beinart wrote in The Atlantic last year after students at an East Coast college banned a particularly offensive conservative speaker: “Giving progressive students a veto over who conservative students can invite comes perilously close to giving progressive students a veto over what conservative students can say.”
If students or former students at the University of Chicago are allowed to block a speech by Steve Bannon, why could they not also block speeches by fellow students who hold Bannon’s views?
The university has defended the invitation to Bannon, which was made by Booth School of Business professor Luigi Zingales. In a statement last week, the administration said: “The University of Chicago is deeply committed to upholding the values of academic freedom, the free expression of ideas, and the ability of faculty and students to invite the speakers of their choice.”
Such a strong and unapologetic stand should surprise no one. Under President Zimmer, the University of Chicago has made clear the university’s unwavering commitment to freedom of expression, even when it’s really hard. Good for Zimmer.
Zimmer has not commented on the Bannon flap, but he has said in earlier speeches and essays that he is troubled by what he sees to be a dangerous trend.
“Free speech is at risk at the very institution where it should be assured: the university,” he warned in a speech two years ago. “Invited speakers are disinvited because a segment of a university community deems them offensive, while other orators are shouted down for similar reasons. Demands are made to eliminate readings that might make some students uncomfortable. Individuals are forced to apologize for expressing views that conflict with prevailing perceptions. In many cases, these efforts have been supported by university administrators.”
And why is this so bad? Because, Zimmer said, a university is not supposed to be “a sanctuary for comfort.” It should be a “crucible for confronting ideas.” And if we silence others now with whom we disagree, they will feel justified silencing us in the future.
No date has been set for Bannon’s visit to the University of Chicago. He should, of course, be allowed to speak, as an invited guest in debate, free of intimidation or disruption.
But we hope and expect to see a large turnout of peaceful protesters.
That, too, is the American way.