Third-Year Student Defends Free Speech in Oratory Competition

by James A. Bacon

Occasionally, we spot signs of pluralism and diverse thought at the University of Virginia, and we applaud them when we see them. Such is the case with an oratory competition organized by faculty adviser Mary Kate Cary and a committee of students in the second annual Oratory Competition.

This event showed a very different side of UVa than what we’ve come to hear from the Student Council and Faculty Senate, which are heavily populated by far-leftists intent upon squelching viewpoints they find problematic (the views of half the U.S. population or more).

The topic was, “Is free speech important at a public university in our democracy — and why?” The winner of the competition and $500 prize was Jered Cooper, a third-year government major from Fort Washington, Md.

Cooper gave a ringing endorsement of free speech in the age of cancel culture. You can find a transcript in this UVA Today article. But a few passages struck me as especially profound and worth highlighting.

How can we help our countrymen if we do not consider how they feel? Any censorship of speech harms the ability of people to understand. We cannot help others unless we acknowledge their motivations. Unfortunately, there are those who believe the feelings of some have no place on a college campus.

Those in favor of a form of university censorship say it is to prevent giving a platform to “dangerous ideas” that have no place in higher education. However, what constitutes a “dangerous idea” is relative. In some instances, such an idea is simply one unpopular with the majority. When the majority uses its power in a way to prevent the opposition from sharing, everyone loses; a perspective is not gained.

Opponents of my viewpoint say that giving a platform to dangerous ideas is criminal, but I disagree. We already have laws that protect from the most radical theories. The fundamental right of free speech is not absolute; you cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater when there is no fire. Providing a civilized forum for people to discuss topics does not mark the end as we know it, but rather the beginning. When we censor respectful dissent, when we silence the loyal opposition, when we decline to open the doors of deliberation to all good faith participants; we cut off the lifeblood of this republic.

People need to be able to respectfully disagree. Each time an idea is challenged, it becomes stronger after scrutiny. No one group holds the solution to the dilemmas of our time. Universities should remain a place where ideas can be challenged, deliberated, and understood. There should be a forum where opinions can be shared civilly without the threat of violent escalation. Understanding someone does not equal agreement, but rather yields compassion and goodwill, which America greatly needs today.

Well said, Mr. Cooper. Here at the Jefferson Council, we thank you for contributing to the civil tone you wish to see. We share your vision for making UVa an exciting place where ideas collide.

And we thank the sponsors — the Department of Politics Honors Program, the Karsh Institute of Democracy, Think Again @ UVA, the Jefferson Literary & Debating Society, the University Democrats and the College Republicans — for making this event possible. 

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

6 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
walter smith
walter smith
28 days ago

Excellent speech, totally in line with what The Jefferson Council would like to see at UVA EVERY DAY, not just in an oratory contest. And exactly the opposite was recently advocated by an editorialist in The Cavalier Daily just a few days ago. The CD article more expresses the atmosphere and Mr. Cooper’s speech is the exception. These outcomes must be reversed or UVA will just be a huge waste of money (it is trying to do that currently) and a betrayal of Jefferson’s desires for the school to pursue truth wherever it may lead.
So, yea for Jered! Great speech, may your free speech view become the dominant one practiced at UVA.

Wahoo'74
Wahoo'74
28 days ago

Jim, this is outstanding. Jared Cooper is to be commended.

His essay defines precisely the type of atmosphere we need at UVA. Let’s hope more students like him speak up, and fewer intolerant screamers. We need civil discourse, not social media “gaslighting” or the literary libel we see from the CD editorial page.

Jack Cann
Jack Cann
28 days ago

Bravo, Jered. Well done!

Jen hans
Jen hans
27 days ago

Bravo to this smart man. Now where are the other 23k plus students of Jefferson’s academic village? At least tbere is 1 leader amongst them who stands tall.

Jordan Ball
Jordan Ball
27 days ago

His speech should be required reading for the administration, faculty, and BOV.

Karen
Karen
20 days ago

Thanks for sharing Jered’s speech! Worth listening to the whole 6.5 minutes. His delivery is just as compelling as his words. It is very encouraging to this mom of a first year that some of these young adults are rising to the moment with which we are faced. I’ll be sharing with my student to ensure he’s seen it. Every member of the BOV and faculty/administration should view!