byFaith | 7.24.17
By Alan Dowd


Dozens of students at the University of Notre Dame walk out of their commencement ceremony, just as Vice President Mike Pence begins to speak. Noted political scientist Charles Murray is forced off stage by protestors at Middlebury College, who don’t even allow him to speak. Controversial author Ann Coulter’s speaking engagement at the University of California-Berkeley is canceled, after the mere extension of an invitation triggers violent protests. The list goes on and on. It seems that lots of people on college campuses don’t want to hear what others think or say—and in many cases, don’t want anyone else to hear what others think or say. As people of faith and as Americans—in that order—this should drive us to speak up for free speech and to pray for our country.


Blessed and Burdened

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), universities have disinvited scheduled speakers at least 30 times (with 54 attempted disinvitations) in 2016 and 2017—and we’re just halfway through 2017. But that doesn’t capture the whole picture: According to FIRE’s Disinvitation Database, there have been 342 attempted or successful disinvitations on college campuses since 2000. In 2000 and 2001, there were 10 attempted disinvitations total and only one successful disinvitation.


If you do the math, those numbers suggest that the problem is getting worse—that the number of attempted disinvitations is increasing each year. The situation is so bad that the University of Wisconsin has started an Annual Disinvited Dinner to promote “freedom of inquiry” and cast a light on how “university leaders and ideologically zealous students often abridge this freedom.”


Indeed, FIRE reports that 49.3 percent of universities surveyed “maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free-speech rights of students.” The Atlantic Monthly adds that “69 percent of college students support disciplinary action against either students or faculty members who use intentionally offensive language.”

That word “offensive” is a tricky and subjective one. Full disclosure: Much of what Ann Coulter says—and especially how she says it—offends me. That may offend some of you who are reading this very essay. But the difference between people like you and me, on the one hand, and people who riot over Coulter being invited to speak, on the other, is that you and I recognize there’s nothing in the Constitution ensuring a right not to be offended. We are blessed and sometimes burdened by freedom of speech, but there’s no such thing as freedom from speech.


The University of Chicago wrestled with this issue back in 1967, concluding that “a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.” To its credit, the school understands that free societies depend on the free exchange of ideas, opinions and beliefs. That presupposes the use of words—uplifting words, upsetting words, even offensive words. The First Amendment not only allows for that—it encourages that.


Why? Perhaps it’s because the Founders understood that the best antidote to offensive ideas and offensive words is exposing them to the light, forcing them to compete in the arena of ideas, and challenging people of goodwill to respond.


Today’s political Left doesn’t play by those rules. When today’s political Left comes across an idea it finds offensive, a speaker who challenges its worldview, a TV show or film it doesn’t like, it organizes boycotts, shouts people down, threatens decision-makers—and if that doesn’t enable the Left to get its way, it riots. Consider the mayhem at Middlebury: After allowing students to scream for some 20 minutes, the moderator asked, “Can you just listen for one minute?” The mob that had hijacked the event shouted, “No!” So, the organizers surrendered and escorted Murray off stage. But that wasn’t enough for the freedom-from-speech mob. They chased after Murray and event organizers, surrounded their car, “pounded on it, rocked it back and forth, and jumped onto the hood,” and assaulted a professor, who was hospitalized with neck injuries.


It’s worth pointing out that when the rest of us encounter speakers, programs, films or ideas we find offensive, we turn the channel, or choose not to attend the event, or perhaps we try to offer our own ideas and engage in debate. The freedom-from-speech mobs that have taken over many universities—lecturing others about open-mindedness while ignoring their own narrow-mindedness, trumpeting diversity and inclusivity while ignoring the political-philosophical conformity that dominates their campuses—are oblivious to the irony.


Not only is the political Left unwilling to engage in civil discourse, it seems increasingly unable to listen to anything or anyone that challenges its worldview. It’s as if their ideas are so flimsy that they cannot even risk exposing them—and themselves—to different points of view.


As college administrators banish certain speakers, as universities ban certain words (see here,here,here,hereand here), as young adults refuse to listen to opposing views and prevent others from hearing opposing views, we are producing a generation of moral pygmies incapable of developing, let alone defending, their own beliefs. Thoughtfully sharing and considering ideas is how individuals develop and strengthen their own beliefs. Ideas, beliefs and opinions are like muscle: they need to be tested and pushed. When they’re not, they atrophy. When that happens, people will be swayed by anything, or unable to consider anything that challenges their own views, or worst of all, unwilling to allow others to say or hear things with which they disagree.


That’s a worrisome thought given that today’s college students are tomorrow’s leaders. “If students are denied the opportunity to see for themselves that the world is full of people who don’t think as they do,” as University of Pennsylvania professor Rafael Walker observes, “they will be inestimably less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship…If colleges do anything to prepare future generations for effective citizenship, it will not be through the bubbles they erect around their campuses”


Out and Up
Without question, words can wound and leave lasting scars. Perhaps that’s why James counseled “those who consider themselves religious” to “keep a tight rein on their tongues.” If not, wordscan destroy like fire and deadly poison.


That helps explain why Paul’s letter to the Ephesians calls on Christ followers to speak the truth—but always in and with love. Put another way, Christ followers should speak caringly and considerately, but the given is that we must speak.


As with so much of the Christian life, intent and motive are as important as action. Our intent in sharing our beliefs should never be to offend. However, if our beliefs happen to offend, that doesn’t mean sharing them is wrong. In fact, it may mean we’re doing exactly what Jesus expects of us. We’re bound to offend someone when we share our beliefs and when we challenge the beliefs of others. Paul, who noted that the cross itself is an offenseto many, seemed to make a living out offending people: Religious leaders, political powerbrokers and his fellow apostles found themselves on the sharp end of Paul’s pointed words.


In that passage from Ephesians, it’s intriguing that Paul seems to link “speaking the truth in love” to a kind of emotional maturity and discernment—the very characteristics so many college campuses are smothering by disallowing the exchange of ideas and disinviting controversial speakers.


Given what’s happening in our culture, it’s tempting to dust off our sandals and retreat from the world. But scripture points us in a different direction.


“The real business of your life as a saved soul,” as Oswald Chambers wrote more than a century ago, “is intercessory prayer.” Most of us think of this as interceding for the lost, and understandably so. But it can also mean interceding for our nation. Indeed, Jeremiahinstructed God’s people—displaced and far from home—to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.”In a similar vein, Paul urges us as “Christ’s ambassadors” to pray for those in authority, for decision-makers, for those charged with administering the law—which in this country includes protecting the freedom of speech.


In addition to praying for our nation and our neighbors, we should speak out and speak up. It pays to recall that Paul—encouragedby the Lord—never stopped speaking and writing, even though all sorts of people tried to muzzle him. Paul understood that there is no commandment against offending someone. He knew that Moses offended Pharaoh, Samuel offended Saul, Nathan offended David. And he knew that Jesus offendedthe comfortable, infuriated the religious, flummoxed the powerfuland shocked even the faithful.


The purpose here is not to equate today’s victims of campus conformity with the heroes of scripture, but rather to draw lessons from the stories of scripture.


For example, Paul once attended a meeting of the Athens city council, where he tried to explain the Good News. In response, “some of them sneered,” and only “a few” believed. There’s a hard lesson in this for us. If even Paul was unable to persuade people of the truth, then we shouldn’t be surprised or discouraged when we are unable. Our task is to keep speaking the truth—in love.


Of course, it seems Paul had one advantage that’s in short supply on college campuses today: The Athens city council at least allowed him to speak.