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.