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How to protect freedom from itself?

Reader comment on item: Columbia University vs. America

Submitted by Aaron Uris (United States), Apr 1, 2003 at 22:39

America is the freest country on earth but it is exercised in somewhat selectively and mostly by Americans who've become so casual about it they forget what it means.

Freedom of speech, basically, means you can say anything you wish. The point is where the buck stops. And that stands as one of the most controversial, unresolved issues. At one extreme, it is through sheer physical threat of violence by opponets, as in the case of Salman Rushdie (author of Satanic Verses) for whom Khomeini issued a fetwa for Rushdie's killing. At the other extreme, free speech is an absolute right that cannot be chipped away. So, anything, including hate speeches, should not be restricted. However, even the staunch defenders recognize free speech can't exist in a vacuum, eventually, they too take sides in the real world of events and take actions along where they stand in the political spectrum, like ACLU fighting the right fights on the liberal side.

So what is the litmus test, if there is one? There are two well-known principles, J. S. Mill's Harm principle (limit only to prevent harm to others) and J. Feinberg's Offense principle (when value of speech far less than the offense and no communal interests are served). While each has its cons as well as pros, I would tell the Columbia University administration that it is easy to see Nicholas de Genova's case weighs heavily on the harm scale through offending a majority of Americans through extremely offensive remarks serving no communal good. I would also remind tell the Columbia administration that a campus, As S. Fish says, is not purely a free speech forum but also an interactive workplace where people have contractual obligations, assigned duties, pedagogical and administrative reponsibilities, the underlying values of which determine the regulation of free speech. Columbia Administration has a responsibility to look into and take action on this case, and on many others mushrooming in that institution. They can't simply say while we don't agree, de Genova can say anything he wants. Would they opt for no action if one academic makes outrageous statements such as all Iraqis should be annihilated, all muslims should be killed, all gays should be interned, etc,. which are equally despicable? It is free to say anything as it is free to exercise actions in line with its repurcussions.

However I doubt that Columbia administration would move on that unless there is concrete action by those harmed and offended, which means all legitimate and civil forms of action, including legal, at the grass roots level as well as via relevant organizations. The Campus Watch is a good starting point and it needs to reach out to the grass roots America.

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