I've always been impressed with the American Civil Liberties Union for supporting the rights of neo-Nazis to march in parades. I'm not sure I could do it.
But I know the ACLU is correct in that instance. Free speech is free speech, and someone has to defend it, especially when the words are most odious.
Free speech is a popular topic these days. Everyone's raving about it in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings. I, for one, didn't think it was appropriate for the French satirical to draw disparaging pictures of the prophet Muhammad, but as everyone likes to boast, I'd take up arms for their right to do it (if Charlie Hebdo were a U.S. publication).
But while Americans bellow in agreement with that sentiment, speech is routinely under attack here in the United States and few complain about it. It happens on college campuses with "speech codes," where certain words or sentiments or speakers are banned. Emory University in Atlanta, for example, prohibits speech or conduct on campus that "creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment." That begs the question, "according to whom?" It's not just beauty that's in the eye of the beholder.
In New York, there is a legislative attempt underway to shut free speech, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the measure pass eventually, if only because no one wants to oppose it. The target is so-called "gay conversion" therapy, a practice understandably upsetting to gay rights activists.
The gay and lesbian community has made enormous strides in convincing Americans, both gay and straight, that there's nothing wrong with being homosexual -- that being gay is a normal and natural occurrence. It wasn't easy to get there. Homosexuality was long classified as a mental and moral disorder, and the world's major religions condemned it for centuries. The fact that the normalcy view is virtually axiomatic today in the United States -- or very much on its way there -- is testament to the determination of gay rights pioneers and to their arguments.
The Empire State Pride Agenda, New York's pre-eminent gay rights organization, has made banning conversion therapy one its top priorities for the 2015 legislative session. New Jersey banned the practice last year. ESPA, which I genuinely admire, will say the ban is intended only for minors, but the real target is the idea that homosexuality is something that can be "cured" or "overcome." That's the mental germ ESPA wants to eradicate.
ESPA is ironically employing the American Psychological Association, a group that once classified homosexuality as a disorder, to label gender conversion bad and harmful therapy. That's a smart tactic -- stamp a medical imprimatur on the bill -- but it doesn't cover up for the speech infringement issue. There are all sorts of "bad" experimental therapies available for people young and old (remember EST?) but prohibiting their practice is akin to prohibiting thought, as much as one might hate what that thought is. Bad therapies fall under their own weight.
Is banning "gay conversion therapy" worth an assault on intellectual freedom, especially when chances of the practice gaining purchase in New York are practically nil? The ESPAs of the world are winning their battles; steps like this only diminish their stature.
Gays should understand as much as any historically persecuted group that banning ideas is more dangerous than the ideas themselves. The way to win a fight -- a cause -- is to argue your points persuasively so as to prove your opposition wrong. As far as I can tell, the gay community is already doing that.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant.