Timidity at Assumption College

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

These words, usually ascribed to Voltaire, but actually written by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, are the hallmark of any society claiming to practice freedom of speech. In the case of the United States, which has enshrined free speech in the First Amendment to its Constitution, such words should be sacrosanct.

And yet in the climate of fear and violence in which we currently find ourselves, there are fewer and fewer people willing to stand up for the right of freedom of speech. Take, for instance, the powers that be at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. After the threat of violence from so-called “anti-fascist” demonstrators, the college disinvited the controversial political scientist, Charles Murray, from speaking on campus last month, citing “alleged safety concerns.” Such concerns arose, no doubt, from the violent protests at Middlebury College earlier this year after Murray had been invited to speak on campus. On that occasion, a college faculty member had been hospitalized.

The president of Middlebury College responded with appropriate robustness to the lawbreakers, taking disciplinary action against 67 students for their alleged involvement in the violent protests. Assumption College’s president showed no such courage. Instead, at the very mention of the threat of violence, the college abandoned its commitment to the First Amendment and to the free speech it enshrines, preferring to kowtow before the storm troopers of political violence.

Bernard Dobski, chairman of Assumption College’s political science department, complained that the college’s decision shows “groups like Antifa that the mere threat of their tactics is enough to cow us into submission.” In other words, the college’s cowardice encourages those who wish to trample free speech under their “anti-fascist” jackboots. Dobski continues:

One might simply note that Murray’s talk at Harvard… was met with protests, but they were peaceful.… If such a high-profile event at the epicenter of the academic world in the middle of Cambridge doesn’t draw the attention of violent protesters, then it is certainly fair to wonder if a similar event at our relatively modest institution, tucked away in the quiet neighborhoods of Worcester, would have drawn the ire and energies of a fractious mob.

Even on the assumption that Dobski’s reading of the situation is correct, his comments miss the most important point. Murray’s right to speak on campus, once he received an official invitation, should have been upheld even if there was a real possibility of violence erupting. Officials at Assumption College should have responded with a dire warning that any students who engaged in violence—or in other activities designed to prevent freedom of speech from occurring—would be expelled.

Furthermore, the college should have asked the local police department to enforce the law, as enshrined in the First Amendment, arresting those who used violence on campus to stifle the free exchange of ideas. Assumption College’s failure to make such a courageous stand for freedom of speech has only served to encourage those who preach political violence and bloodshed.

Speaking personally, as a Christian, I find Murray’s political “science” to be suspect scientifically and beyond the pale in terms of morality. Measuring the value of people in terms of their alleged IQ suggests a belief in eugenics and violates the Christian understanding of the dignity of the human person.

Furthermore, his suggestion that African Americans are inferior because of their alleged place on the IQ-tested “bell curve” is objectionable, as is his apparent belief that the Jews are some form of master race because of their alleged superior place on the same bell curve. His views might be objectionable, but that does not take away his right to express them. If his views are alleged to be irrational and immoral, they should be countered with the power of reason and morality; if they are directly contrary to the known truths and moral teachings of our Catholic faith, it would have been better had the college not invited him at all. His views should not be countered with violence or the threat of violence, the latter of which leads to the crushing of dissident opinion in the service of a Nietzschean “will to power.”

Ultimately it doesn’t matter if the violence leads to the tyranny of Hitler’s National Socialism or the tyranny of Stalin’s international socialism. It doesn’t matter from which end of the spectrum the violence comes, not least because both ends meet in the same fascist-anti-fascist place. We might disapprove of what Charles Murray says, but if we don’t defend to the death his right to say it, we might find ourselves defending to the death our right to say anything.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

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