29 October 2008

Free Speech at Fredonia State

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 23, 2008

On Tuesday, October 7, 2008 in front of Reed Library, a father-daughter team (Jim and Michelle Deferio) came to argue for their Christian views, among them that God condemns homosexual acts and that they are wrong. The campus response showed the degree to which the campus left will bully their opponents and the administration and faculty will tolerate the bullying. I should disclose that a few years ago I was in a free-speech battle at Fredonia State.

The campus response to these speakers was a case study in liberal paranoia. First, according to the Fredonia State student paper, The Leader, around 1,500 people rallied to protest the speakers’ message. Later in the day, they in effect shut down access to the speaker, Jim Deferio. By the time I got there, protestors had partially encircled Deferio with a large white sheet so that most of the audience, who were gathered on the library stairs, could not see him. In addition, there was drumming and chanting that was so loud that it was very difficult to hear what he had to say. At least when I was there, they thus made it difficult to see him and nearly impossible to hear him. Music professor, Kay Stonefelt, took credit for organizing the student drum circle (“an endless beat to the mantra of peace”) and presumably for drowning out Deferio’s voice.

Despite the fact that the speaker was partially encircled and drowned out by sound, the University Police Chief Anne Burns refused to allow him to use sound amplification devices (for example, a megaphone) to get out his message. I don’t know whether the ban on such devices is part of a pre-existing rule. The Leader decided not to cover what the Deferios said. Apparently, the speakers’ argument was simply too dangerous and upsetting to allow the campus community to consider it.

Campus administrators, faculty, and staff seemed to condone much of the protestors’ behavior. According to The Leader, the night before the speakers arrived at campus, Monica White, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, met with Student Association representatives and the leaders of student groups, including the pro-gay Pride Alliance and other multi-cultural groups. Earlier in the week, Vice President for Student Affairs, David Herman, gathered information on the speakers and later expressed concern about the “tone of the message and how disruptive it might be.” On the day of the protests, he provided hourly reports to Fredonia State’s President, Dennis Hefner. Five of the university’s fourteen police officers monitored the speakers and protestors. In response to the speakers, The Leader reported that University Counseling Center staff were on-site to “provide help for students who were visibly shaken and disturbed.” After the visit by the Deferios, President Hefner and around 350 attendees met that night at the campus Peace Pole for a moment of silence and then sang “Amazing Grace.”

There are a number of disturbing features about these events. First, there is the issue of whether the protestors interfered with the speakers’ Constitutional right of free speech. While the Deferios were allowed to talk, the partial encirclement by a large white sheet was probably near the legal line in terms of interfering with their speech. Had they completely encircled them with the sheet, this would have interfered with their rights and significant encirclement is close to complete encirclement.

Second, even if the protestors’ actions did not violate the speakers’ right of free speech, it still was a case of a campus allowing protestors to silence one viewpoint with behavior that would never be tolerated if it were used to silence other viewpoints. The campus would never tolerate racist students and faculty using large sheets and drums to lessen access to black speakers, particularly if this was done all semester. A similar thing is true if Christian groups engaged in similar behavior in or order to silence leftist administrators. Allowing message-disrupting acts when they shut down some ideas but not others is viewpoint discrimination and the law takes a dim view of it.

Third, the campus might have shut down the community’s consideration of a sound argument. I saw them only briefly, but as best I can determine from discussions with students who were there, and I have no way of checking their accuracy, here was one of the speakers’ arguments.

1. If someone is Christian, then he should follow the Bible.
2. If someone should follow the Bible, then he should not have gay sex.
3. Hence, if someone is Christian, then he should not have gay sex.

I take it that the first claim is straightforward. The second is more complex. The Bible addresses gay sex in a number of places. From Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” From Romans 1:26-27, “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” See also, Corinthians 1: 9 and Timothy 1: 8-10.

Discussion of the speakers’ ideas might lead one to reason as follows: the argument is sound and because we independently know that gay sex is permissible, Christianity is false. Alternatively, discussion of this argument might have led to interesting discussions of how to interpret the Bible. For example, perhaps one should reject the literal text and look for the original intent behind the passages. Here the issue arises whether the intent is that of God or human authors. Alternatively, perhaps one should figure out what morality independently requires and use this knowledge to decide which parts of the Bible should be deemphasized or ignored. Note that this comes perilously close to rejecting the notion that if someone is a Christian, then he should follow the Bible.

As John Stuart Mill in his classic work, On Liberty (1859), pointed out, there is value in discussing unpopular ideas. By discussing unpopular ideas, people sometimes learn the conventional wisdom is false, that conventional wisdom is partially false, or the best reasons to accept the conventional wisdom rather than merely repeating it in a child-like manner. This last point is particularly relevant given that this argument is probably accepted by many Americans. None of these gains were possible in this case because of the crowd’s refusal to let people consider the speakers’ ideas.

Fourth, this incident points out that the campus views its students as children. The presence of counselors to care for psychologically injured protestors and the administration’s advance meetings with gay and other groups suggests a view of the students as too pure and delicate to face opposing views. The Leader compounded this view by deciding not to cover their message. This infantilization shortchanges students.

Fear of ideas different from the campus liberal orthodoxy is no excuse for closing down the marketplace of ideas.


The Objectivist said...

Note that the notion that the campus has at least two top-flight intellects who are committed Christians and would have interesting things to say on this topic. One such person is Dale Tuggy.

Instead of drumming and chanting, the students would be better served by having him present on the topic or at least debate another faculty on the following topic: Does God forbid homosexual acts?

The Objectivist said...

Note the Chief of University Police, Anne Burns, denied Deferio the right to use a sound-amplification device despite the fact that he was being drowned out by the drumming and chanting. The student behavior may have violated the rights-and-responsibilities code. See the following.

"Demonstration or Other Groups or Individual Action

The campus must be open to a free exchange of ideas and individuals and groups have protected Constitutional rights; therefore, all members of the community are expected to conduct dialogues with mutual respect and courtesy. Prohibited are:

Making unnecessary noise or causing noise to be made with objects and instruments, which disturb university functions or community living."

The Constructivist said...

Further background.

The Constructivist said...

I'd be interested in hearing from The Theist if claim 1 is as straightforward as you claim it to be, O. At the end of your essay, you seem to suggest it's not.

The Constructivist said...

Hey, O, I think you'll appreciate the way Michael Berube responded to a much more open-minded Christian activist back in the day.

I wonder what you would make of the argument that there are literally thousands of teaching moments that could come out of analyzing the issues raised by the speaker and the protestors, as you have done here, The Theist has done in the campus newspaper, and a philosophy colleague of yours has done on the faculty listserv. The students who did the guest post on my blog that I linked to in an earlier comments and I had a half-hour discussion about some of the issues relevant to literary study that come out of debates over reading the Bible, from authorial intent to hermeneutics, from historical context to political uses. I'm sure you've had similar conversations in and out of your classes.

So what do you think of this classic "teaching the conflict" argument?

In addition, many eyewitnesses have reported students attempted to engage the speaker in exactly the sort of dialogue you call for, for over an hour and a half. How does this fact affect your take on the protests?

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