Anyone who followed the protests surrounding Libertarian Ben Shapiro’s speech on the Berkeley campus, the huge police presence, the anti-fascist and anti-racist chants and the threats of violence, then actually watched the speech and its subsequent Q&A session last Thursday might wonder what all the fuss was about.
While we neither comment upon nor endorse Shapiro’s opinions, his speech and give-and-take with respectful audience members hardly seemed a threat to freedom or the social order. They were, instead, a reminder that free speech and the free exchange of ideas are necessary for society to thrive. If someone considers an idea offensive, he or she should counter it with better, more persuasive ideas, not with violence.
The Berkeley episode is relevant to Utahns because Shapiro is scheduled to speak at the University of Utah on Sept. 27. He has been invited by a group called “Young Americans for Freedom,” not by the university.
News reports said U of U officials traveled to Berkeley to study how the campus dealt with protesters and kept the auditorium where Shapiro spoke safe.
Those precautions are prudent and wise. We hope they prove unnecessary. A university, of all places, should be a place where an exchange of ideas is welcomed. However, we know protests are planned, and some have called for the speech to be canceled. We applaud the university for allowing it to continue. Ideas should not be considered threatening.
Shapiro is no fan of President Donald Trump. The Anti-Defamation League has listed him among the top 10 Jewish journalists who were the brunt of anti-Semitic attacks on the internet in 2016. Yet, protesters at Berkeley seemed eager to attach him to Trump and his policies without engaging his actual arguments.
The U.S. Supreme Court has, through the years, recognized that some speech may indeed be dangerous if it is of an incendiary nature. This was famously characterized in a 1919 opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who used the example of falsely shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater. The resulting harm of such an act would outweigh the shouter’s right to speak.
But Shapiro has not been shouting “fire!” A Harvard educated lawyer, he has provocative opinions about the causes of racism, the notions of white privilege, teaching methods at mainstream universities and the root causes of inequality and poverty. So far as we can tell, he does not advocate any sort of racial superiority. He does, however, argue that social liberalism is destroying the nation and choking debate. His ideas should be fodder for dialogue, not threats of violence.
The nation’s founders included free-speech guarantees in the Constitution’s First Amendment for an important reason. They were influenced by John Milton, the 17th-century British intellectual who said: “Though all winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple. Who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
The founders understood that the best ideas for governance are often found through unfettered exchanges, free from intimidation. Such a thing has been rare in the history of the world, where power structures typically have viewed free speech as a threat. That should never be the case in the United States, nor at America's public universities.