Hear this, oh those who listen

Hecklers who aim to silence campus speakers or elected leaders, sometimes with violence, must not erode a democracy’s commitment to consider a diversity of views in public forums.

AP Photo
A man shouts at Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., as she speaks during a town hall meeting with constituents April 17, 2017, in San Francisco .

In a recent skit on “Saturday Night Live,” two actors in a mock TV ad invite Americans to live in a new planned city called The Bubble. The glass-encased city is designed to be a “like-minded community of free thinkers – and no one else.”

“If you’re an open-minded person,” says the pitchman, “come here and close yourself off.”

A video of this skit might be useful to show before many public events in the United States these days, such as talks by controversial speakers at public universities or at town hall meetings with elected leaders. It points to a need for greater use of an essential quality in a democratic society: the ability to listen to others out of a shared desire to discover truth and to find common solutions.

By and large, civility and free speech remain the norm in academia and politics. But after a few incidents of violence on campuses to prevent a public talk and of politicians being shouted down, the forces of civility need to rise up.

Two recent examples make the case. In mid-April, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California was forced to deal with a heckler at a public forum in San Francisco. And on the conservative side, commentator Ann Coulter had to cancel a planned appearance at the University of California, Berkeley out of a concern over possible violence.

Free speech should not need a police detail.

Such incidents have forced many university presidents to remind students and faculty of the need for a diversity of ideas in learning and for civility during public talks, even on uncomfortable topics. And in March, the student government at Northwestern University became the first to pass a resolution in support of “viewpoint diversity” on campus.

In Congress, meanwhile, about 50 members of the freshman class in the House, both Republican and Democratic, signed a letter in February called “Commitment to Civility.” It aims to restore trust in Congress as well as head off hecklers who would disrupt public forums in which elected leaders take questions from constituents. The new members pledge to “strive at all times to maintain collegiality and the honor of the office.”

Both Congress and colleges are involved with great moral struggles, from racial inequality to national indebtedness. Yet there is a more primary struggle over the moral necessity to hear different views in public forums. In a free society, even free thinkers must grapple with those who oppose freedom of speech. No bubble exists to avoid that struggle.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial mischaracterized the public forum with Sen. Feinstein.] 

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