Jul 12, 2020

The state of free speech

Tony Petersen

I may not like what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

This saying is often attributed to Voltaire, but it has developed into an axiom of democracy. Freedom of speech is now one of the pillars of democratic government.

This issue was raised recently on Fresno State’s campus when Ilan Pappé, an Israeli historian, gave a lecture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a full audience in the Leon S. and Pete P. Peters Educational Center.

Pappé’s visit caused a minor controversy on campus and in the community due to his past statements on Israel, specifically for accusing the Israeli government of committing ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people.

In an article in The Fresno Bee written by Collegian alum Ezra Romero, political science professor Yishaiya Abosch called Pappé a “fraudulent historian with fraudulent claims about the origin of Israel.”

Those representing the university argued that having Pappé on campus was simply an expression of free speech, and not an endorsement of his ideas.

“Our universities do not endorse any particular position, but emphatically support the rights of people to express and hear all points of view,” Fresno State President John Welty, along with the presidents of Cal Poly and Cal State Northridge, said in a statement. “For these reasons, it is not appropriate for our universities, as public institutions, to decide whether speakers are permitted to appear on campus based on the ideas they hold.”

At issue is not the substance of Pappé’s critique of the modern state of Israel — on which, as an unabashed, rabid right-winger, I tend to agree with the eminent Dr. Abosch — but whether Pappé has the right to make his critique at all. On this we can surely say that he does.

Too often in public life, some people see themselves as the arbiters of acceptable political discourse when speaking of controversial topics. Today, the bounds of that discourse have narrowed significantly.

One needn’t look too far to find an example of the ever-shrinking spectrum of appropriate opinions. Recently, conservative political analyst Pat Buchanan was fired by MSNBC because, in the words of the television channel’s president, Phil Griffin, the content of Buchanan’s recent book should not “be part of the national dialogue, much less part of the dialogue on MSNBC.”

Keep in mind that Buchanan is a man that served in three Republican presidential administrations and ran for president three times himself, nearly wresting the GOP nomination from establishment frontrunner Bob Dole in 1996. He was no fringe figure.

This tendency to silence opponents is the reason our politics are so toxic nowadays. How can one reach a compromise with another if the opposing viewpoint is so noxious that, as Griffin said, it doesn’t deserve to “be part of the national dialogue”?

Liberals watch MSNBC and find most conservative opinions offensive and not worthy of public discussion; same goes for conservatives and FOX News. People can go an entire day — or longer — without hearing a contrary opinion. The devolution of American citizens into separate niches is not healthy for a democratic society.

We should pride ourselves on a diversity of opinions. People of all political stripes should be able to enter the political arena and argue their positions without having to worry about ad hominem epithets hurled their way. This is how people should make informed decisions in a representative democracy such as this.

Which brings us back to Pappé. Of course he should have been allowed to lecture on campus. In a country where people vote and the majority rules, it can be no other way.


Tony Petersen is the opinion editor of The Collegian. Follow him on Twitter @tonypetersen4.

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