Fifty years ago, administrators at the University of California at Berkeley tried to curtail free speech on campus. They quickly had a situation on their hands: Hundreds of protesters materialized, a priest clambered onto the top of a police car to quiet the crowd and students swarmed the Administration Building. Eventually, the governor intervened, telling the university’s president to broker a truce. The Free Speech Movement was born.
Maybe you weren’t a child of the 1960s. Maybe you weren’t even alive in the 1960s. Rest assured, the 1960s were more than Woodstock, bad hairdos and really good music. The era helped cement the idea that college campuses are a place for intellectual freedom and free speech.
A Christian prayer rally featuring Gov. Bobby Jindal that’s scheduled for January 24 at LSU in Baton Rouge should take place as planned regardless of what you think of the organizers or what you think about the rally’s content. Free speech is just that, the freedom to speak your mind. I can think of no better forum for free speech than a public college campus.
Our colleges teach our young people and stimulate their minds. It’s on campuses that they explore the issues and find their own voices. Students deserve a full catalog of choices.
Fifty years after the Free Speech Movement, however, there are some who want to muzzle the First Amendment right to free speech on college campuses. They are wrong. “I do not agree with what you have to say,” the 18th Century philosopher Voltaire once said, “but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire was also a staunch advocate of freedom of religion, realizing, correctly, that freedom of speech and worship are inextricably related.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas put it this way: “The framers of the Constitution knew human nature as well as we do. They too had lived in dangerous days. They too knew the suffocating influence of orthodoxy and standardized thought. They weighed the compulsions for restrained speech and thought against the abuses of liberty. They chose liberty.”
The objections being raised to the LSU prayer rally are undoubtedly sincere, even if you don’t agree with them. The primary objection is with the rally’s sponsor, the American Family Association, a religious group that opposes gay marriage and homosexual rights. The LSU Faculty Senate and many students have characterized the prayer rally as damaging to the university’s reputation. Protests are planned. Both the prayer rally and the protests should be allowed to take place. It’s a slippery slope when you tell people whose opinions you disagree with that they can’t speak or assemble or worship their God on a college campus. Intellectual freedom is about the free exchange of ideas.
Full disclosure: I’m a practicing Methodist. But I’d feel the same way if the LSU rally was to promote atheism.
Let people pray at LSU. And let people protest too.
John Kennedy is treasurer for the state of Louisiana