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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Young: Accepting free speech means listening to ideas that offend

Attempts to silence undesirable expression are very much

Attempts to silence undesirable expression are very much with us -- and they don't just come from authoritarian theocratic regimes, but from people who think they have a right not to be offended. Credit: iStock

Twenty-five years ago, British writer Salman Rushdie, whose novel, "The Satanic Verses," was viewed as blasphemous by many Muslims, became the target of a fatwa -- a death decree -- by then-Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Rushdie spent 10 years in hiding; several violent attacks, some fatal, were linked to the book the first five years after its publication.

Fortunately, backlash against speech deemed to be offensive rarely turns homicidal. But less drastic attempts to silence undesirable expression are very much with us -- and they don't just come from authoritarian theocratic regimes, but from people who think they have a right not to be offended.

Historically, censorship has been based on perceived offense to God or government. Now, it's based on hurt feelings. Of course, authoritarian governments can easily manipulate such backlash to their advantage. In Russia, the cable channel Dozhd -- the country's remaining independent news station and a thorn in the Kremlin's side -- is being dropped by numerous providers after running a poll deemed offensive to World War II veterans. The popular backlash is doing the government's dirty work.

But that's Russia. In America, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 62 percent of colleges and universities have policies that restrict constitutionally protected speech that may be "offensive" or "unwelcome" on the basis of race, gender, religion and other characteristics. The foundation, a nonprofit championing free speech on campus, has defended students and professors punished for everything from satirizing Islamic Awareness Week to criticizing affirmative action to speaking against the military.

The attitude toward unwelcome expression at many schools is evident in a recent story from Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College, which hosted a discussion between left-wing scholar Cornel West and conservative philosopher Robert George on communicating across differences in values. Many students were angered because George opposes abortion and same-sex marriage -- views that some said should not be tolerated. One student told the campus newspaper, "What really bothered me is, the whole idea is that at a liberal arts college, we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion."

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the college newspaper, The Badger Herald, was criticized last fall for publishing a student's letter that pointed out that some rape accusations are false and that next-day regrets about drunken sex should not be confused with rape. The editor explained that she ran the letter to raise awareness about the existence of such "hateful" views on campus.

Efforts to stamp out insensitive speech are not limited to college campuses. A recent story in The New Republic described a campaign in Atlanta to kill a small independent music magazine, Stomp and Stammer -- known for its irreverent style -- after it ran a short item calling a popular restaurant owner's funeral "the most overdone memorial" and suggested the deceased woman was undeservedly elevated to local icon because she was a lesbian. Despite an apology from the editor, the magazine's advertisers were targeted for a boycott, causing a third of them to withdraw.

Conservatives who deplore such intolerance on the left often show little more tolerance toward expression that offends patriotic or religious sensibilities. Remember the boycott against the Dixie Chicks after they criticized President George W. Bush at the start of the war in Iraq? Or the protests to shut a 1998 Manhattan production of Terence McNally's play "Corpus Christi," which depicts a gay Jesus?

It seems that, when it comes to speech we dislike, we have met the ayatollah, and he is us.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.



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