Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Marketplace of Ideas: untidy, irreverent and indispensable

My friend Jim pointed out a recent post by Professor Geoffrey Stone that draws an interesting parallel between Columbia University's treatment of President Ahmadinejad and the Senate's condemnation of Moveon.org's General Betray Us ad.

[The] fundamental mission as a university... is not to "endorse" particular ideas as "right" or "wrong," but to promote a robust and lively and sometimes controversial exchange of views in order to promote the ultimate goal of education....

[A] university must remain neutral on all matters of public policy that do not directly affect the university itself, it should not have a faculty vote, for example, on whether to condemn the war in Iraq, on whether Mr. Bush is a good president, or on whether Mr. Ahmadinejad violates human rights.

Of course, individual faculty members, students, staff, and alumni may state their own positions on such matters with complete freedom. But the university itself should not take such positions. The responsibility of a university is to facilitate debate and disagreement, not to stifle it by declaring an "official" university position... This should be anathema to any university....

This brings me to the flap over MoveOn.org's recent ad about "General Betray Us." The ad suggested that General Petraeus was "cooking the books for the White House" by presenting to the American public and to the Congress a misleading picture of the situation in Iraq. There is absolutely no question but that this statement was fully protected by the First Amendment.

As the Supreme Court has often and clearly explained, the First Amendment embodies "a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." The MoveOn.org ad is well within the bounds of this fundamental constitutional protection and well within the long tradition in this nation of challenging our public officials -- military as well as civilian.

Nonetheless, the Senate, with the support of many Democrats, adopted a resolution solely for the purpose of condemning the MoveOn.org ad....

Just as it is not the business of Columbia University to declare some views "right" and other views "wrong," it is not the business of the United States Senate to enact resolutions condemning the constitutionally protected expression of private citizens. To be sure, many of us sometimes find the constitutionally protected expression of others offensive.... In this nation, we are all free as individuals to "condemn" the views with which we disagree, and individual senators, acting in their individual capacities, are similarly free to declare their distaste for certain expression.

But it is not a legitimate role for the Senate of the United States to pass formal resolutions condemning the expression of constitutionally protected views...

Such expression, like MoveOn.org's attack on General Petraeus, is not only protected by the First Amendment, but is essential to the functioning of a self-governing society. For the very same reasons that Columbia University should not declare particular ideas, perspectives, or positions "out of bounds," so too, the United States Senate should foster "uninhibited, robust, and wide-open" public debate and not attempt to intimidate citizens by irresponsible public declarations of official condemnation. Such a tactic smacks of the excesses of the McCarthy Era.

Justice Louis Brandeis cautioned us exactly 80 years ago that "the freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth," that "it is hazardous" in a self-governing society for the government "to discourage thought" and free expression, and that "the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones."...

[N]either President Bollinger nor the members of the Senate acted wisely or properly in conscripting the official voices of Columbia University and the United States Senate to declare a "politically correct" position for their university or their nation. |Columbia University, the U.S. Senate, and General Betray Us - Geoffrey R. Stone at Huffington Post|
A parallel could also be drawn to the politicization of the Justice Department. While the Senate and the Justice Department are political bodies, that does not mean that everything they do should be about pandering to one interest group or another.

Quite the contrary, for our Republic to flourish, they must take prinicipled positions on difficult issues and provide opportunities for citizens to live together in tolerance despite our disagreements.

No comments: