By Fred Dickey San Diego Union Tribune August 21, 2017
When Socrates stood before the judges to defend his right to free speech, he said, “If you turn me free on the condition that I no longer speak my mind...I shall say to you, ‘Men of Athens, I shall obey the gods, rather than you."'
Found guilty, he was compelled to drink poison.
Today, 2,416 years later, Socrates might survey the suppression of free speech on college campuses, throw up his hands in disgust, and say, “For this I drank hemlock?”
In college, I loved the rhetorical sparring between ideologies, left, right, far out and far in. It taught me that democracy is not built on agreement alone, but even more so on disagreement, and how sides come together--by respect and compromise.
In journalism, I realized you could make a living with those beliefs. Free money. So, do I believe in free speech? You might as well ask an engineer if she believes in math. And nonpartisan reporting? It’s the Golden Rule. And reporters who think they know better than readers? Straight to hell.
Personally, I’m a traditional liberal. That means everyone has a reason to disagree with me, and I want to make sure they have the chance.
I don’t care what you are. If you have views different from mine, you’re important to me because I need you for balance. If everyone believed as I do, and with no conflicting ideas barring our way, we would push each other to disastrous extremes, because there would be no one to protect us from ourselves.
On the other hand, maybe I should have listened to mom who said I should consider becoming a humanities professor. At least then I could be protected from unwelcome ideas.
Naweed Tahmas is the attentive guy in the front row of class whose arm shoots up first with the answer. He thinks with a bean-counter exactitude that’s earned him an A-minus GPA. (Said with respect by one whose beans often conduct themselves mischievously.)
He’s quiet and precise; the only political science major I can recall who doesn’t pronounce it “poly sci.”
He’s an articulate, handsome guy of 21 who intends to be a lawyer. If I had a daughter of 20, I would have brought her along to the interview.
Do I sound impressed? Yeah, guess I do.
Naweed grew up in Oceanside, the son of middle class white-collar immigrants. He’s a product of El Camino High School and MiraCosta College. I first assumed he was of Indian descent (which many do, he says), but he’s a first-generation Persian of Christian persuasion with ancestors from Tajikistan and Iran.
Persian is an ethnicity, he says, Iranian is a nationality. The distinction is important to him or he wouldn’t have mentioned it.
(Thanks for offering the information, Naweed, but let me lay that burden down and just call you an American.)
Naweed is vice president of the Berkeley College Republicans, a beleaguered club of a few dozen students, one of whom is his girlfriend. (Maybe students who think alike...uh, study together.)
He is also a Trump supporter and, frankly, our president can cause me more anguish than a stubbed toe. However, I couldn’t care less about Naweed’s politics. This is about his voice, not his vote.
Naweed chose to be a political contrarian on one of the most leftist campuses in the country. They don’t need First Amendment protection, he does. His experience is a reminder that freedom of speech is not about protecting the words that others want to hear, but the words they don’t want to hear.
On Feb. 1, 2017, Naweed found himself a point man in the battle for free speech that has invaded college campuses nationwide like hungry locusts.
It is ironic that the nastiest attack (thus far) was at UC Berkeley, which was given the nickname “Berserkeley” for its free-speech conflicts of the ‘60s and ‘70s. At that time, it was thought free speech had won, but recent events remind us that skirmishes don’t decide a war.
Milo Yiannopoulos is a gay, conservative provocateur. He was scheduled to speak on the Berkeley campus on Feb. 1. Yiannopoulos relishes offending antagonists by saying outrageous things. Naturally, that horrifies many students and can even send some fleeing to “safe spaces.”
(Don’t you realize that’s what he’s trying to do? That’s his shtick. It’s a wild form of argumentation, but argumentation it is, ask any comedian.)
A footnote: “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” are safeguards concocted to “protect” students from ideas that might otherwise bruise their sensibilities and psyches; you know, those same ideas they had gone to school to learn about, and which they will have to deal with in the real world they will shortly be cast into--or onto.
When the Yiannopoulos event was due to start, leftist rioters attacked event supporters, destroyed state property, and started fires to burn offending banners.
Police ringed the “demonstration” and did virtually nothing, as the press widely reported. Naweed and his group had to take refuge behind locked doors.
Naweed says police were under orders to “stand down” as the vandals rioted and threatened with impunity. Millions of TV viewers saw the cops doing just that as they watched the hoodlums cavort.
I asked a university PR staffer for a reply to charges that the police were prevented from enforcing the law by higher-ups.
The PR guy deflected the question and said police don’t like to aggressively act unless they have a 3 to 1 cop-power edge on rioters. They were mainly interested in protecting lives, not property.
Can’t they multitask? They had a loudspeaker, guns, clubs, tear gas, tasers, and who knows what else. Maybe a tank around the corner. How big an edge do they need?
A few weeks later, a speech on campus had been scheduled for conservative Ann Coulter. The gravest threat of needle-tongue Coulter is that she might leave her audience thrashing on the floor in fits of irritation. However, her appearance was cancelled due to barriers put on her appearance by the university, Naweed says.
My PR interview went nowhere. Think political spinners on TV, and you’ll understand why clumps of my hair littered the ground. In summary, the spokesman said the university welcomes all conservative speakers, treats the students who invite them fairly, and...let’s leave it at that.
The college Republicans have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming the university violated students' rights to free speech. As policy, U.C. Berkeley will not comment on a pending lawsuit.
When I think of thugs attacking people because they don’t believe the right things, I think that’s probably what Robespierre did before he discovered the efficiency of shutting mouths by chopping heads.
Naweed related several incidents of members of his group being harassed on campus. However, the bigger problem for all students, and the gravest implication for American education, is in the classroom where he says conservative students are treated like aliens--from Mars, not Mexico.
Do you feel free to speak up in class?
“What I've noticed when I speak up is that a bad relationship with the professor grows--“ He pauses. “Let me reword that. I want to say this in a diplomatic way.”
It’s diplomatic enough for me.
“Professors tend to not like me after I speak up in class or I challenge their views. I think my arguments irritate them, and they take it very personally.
“One time, there was a professor that initially liked me at the beginning of the semester; told me that I’m the exact student she'd been looking for. (However,) I disagreed with her one time, and after class she sat down next to me and said, ‘Naweed, I'm very disappointed in you.’ All because I dared challenge her views.
“The topic (I challenged) had to do with this idea of victimhood for minorities. I gave her examples of my family's story, and how they were able to become successful. But she didn't look fondly on that.”
In a political theory class, he says another professor issued a “trigger warning” for sensitive students about a passage he was about to read from Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan.”
But Hobbes was 17th century.
“Yeah, I know. He was reading the line that said life is short and brutal. And he had to warn the class before he read that excerpt.”
Naweed smiles faintly. “That's how it's become on campuses.
The day after Trump's election, (one of my) professors decided to make use of the session by having a period for grieving.
“Students were crying in class. And there was one student, she was wearing a hijab, she stood up and said, ‘Professor, is it true that Trump's going to put my family in a concentration camp?’
“The teacher put his hand on his chest, and said, ‘Yes, unfortunately, yes.’”
He shakes his head at the memory, still incredulous. “As a political science major, I’m definitely in the lion’s den.”
To get those A’s, Naweed, do you ever just tell your profs what they want to hear?
He grins. “Yeah, I’ve become an expert in writing Marxist papers. I know the ideology.”
How do these academics get around our historic commitment to free speech?
“Well, they believe in a concept called hate speech (as a rationale to override free speech). If you ask them where this hate-speech concept came from, and how do you define hate speech, and who is to regulate it, they never have an answer for you.”
Hmmm. Let’s see, now. Who would “volunteer” to be the censors? Let me guess...Yes--they would!
In one sense, Naweed is smarter than all the professors who try to indoctrinate students. Smarter, because he--not they--understands that the First Amendment is not only law, it’s spiritual.
The visceral need to censor is a combination of arrogance and fear--arrogance that my ideas are superior; fear that they are not.
Orwell said freedom of speech is the right to say two plus two equals four. I go one step further. I say, it is the right to say two plus two equals five.
There are 1.5 million college teachers in the U.S. I ask at least one--please, just one--to make like a prophet of old and stand in the college quad and thunder--“You are betraying the principles that justify you being here!”
Taking free speech out of the university is like taking the cross out of the church.
Fred Dickey's home page is www.freddickey.net
He believes that every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org