Monday, February 1, 2010

An Assault on Petraeus and Free-Speech

Recently at Georgetown University, General David Petraeus, current CENTCOM Commander, was shouted down by student protestors when attempting to give a lecture. This is relatively unsurprising as it is all too common at elite American universities for students to attempt to prevent those they disagree with from talking. A New Republican discussed a similar incident that occurred at UNC last April. Predictably, many rushed to defend the protestors in the name of free-speech. In an editorial in The Hoya, Georgetown’s school newspaper, one of the senior deans in the School of Foreign Service, James Reardon-Anderson, called the incident “one of those learning moments that makes campus life more interesting.” Such defenses trash the concept of free-speech and make a mockery of everything America and these universities are supposed to stand for.

Reardon-Anderson’s argument is simple. Freedom of speech means minority groups have the right to say whatever they want, whenever they want. He states, “Freedom of speech must allow for a minority to annoy and discomfort the majority….” But freedom of speech does not work this way. Freedom of speech prevents encroachment on the individual’s (or group’s) ability to speak its mind. The concept exists to prevent the quashing of dissent, to facilitate the free flow of ideas, and to promote discourse that will better the lives of all. This is the liberal principle which our nation is built upon.

The Georgetown protestors are decidedly illiberal in their approach. Their actions are not about promoting free-speech, but about silencing a perspective with which they do not agree. Reardon-Anderson tacitly acknowledges this by refusing to condemn the students’ removal. In fact, he applauds the success of the system:
Happily for those who found these interruptions improper, the system worked: The offending parties were warned to stop and — when they failed to heed the warning — they were removed from the hall or they left of their own accord. There was no threat to the health and safety of anyone. The event proceeded without further disruption.
The fact that he acknowledges that their removal was appropriate signifies that the protestors were not behaving in accordance with the concept of free-speech. If they were, any attempt to silence them should be castigated. The error that Reardon-Anderson and so many like-minded supporters make is that they confuse speech with noise. Free-speech prevents restrictions on the contribution of ideas to the community; it does not allow individuals to create noise to drown out others speech. Silencing Petraeus by talking over him is tantamount to duct-taping his mouth closed.

While it is the opinion of ANR that the constitutional right to free-speech is (or should be) only applicable to the government’s ability to limit speech and is not necessarily a restriction on private institutions ability to limit speech, we do support the voluntary commitment to this principle that institutions such as Georgetown profess. It is important to note that tyranny need not just come from the majority (if Petraeus is even part of the majority) or the government. Tyranny comes from anyone who unjustly abrogates the rights of another. Free-speech, as a principle, protects against this injustice. In this instance, the protestors are committing the highest form of tyranny by silencing another. They should have every right to present and discuss their perspectives, but only if they allow others to dialogue as well. The irony is that they are defended in the name of the very principles they cease to respect.


  1. Josh--

    No argument here, especially on the appalling sanction of the events written by one of the campus grown-ups, applying a disturbing moral equivalency between the disruptors and the polite audience. The actions of (a handful) GU students is yet another example in the parade of unruly, illiberal college students found so often across this nation and their screaming objection to anything "objectionable."

    First, Petraeus is hardly a Patton-like demagogue, but a reserved intellectual who is largely responsible for getting our proverbial chestnuts out of the fire in Iraq (Afghanistan remains to be seen, though a comparison between the two countries with regard to COIN practices is really not compatible).

    But an interesting point you may have overlooked: Petraeus is, without discussion, the nation's/military's most respected advocate of shutting down Guantanamo Bay, saying that its presence and propaganda value hurts our soldiers in the field. You'd think that a group of far-left college students would welcome his point of view and cheer him for it -- but then again, that would mean actually reviewing all sides of their particular argument, and it's pretty clear they had no intention of entertaining a reasoned debate.

    One also imagines that these students were probably outraged at the tea party protests during health-care town halls over the summer in which Democratic politicians were often shouted down without mercy ...

    This is all disappointing, though it should be noted that a) it was a small minority of students, and b) it appears that the overwhelming majority pressured them to leave using non-violent means. Perhaps this is the best we can expect given the atmosphere of the modern American university culture.


  2. Karl~

    Well I'm glad to see we have agreed on something. If only all politics were so simple!

    I think you bring up a good point when stating "You'd think that a group of far-left college students would welcome his point of view and cheer him for it -- but then again, that would mean actually reviewing all sides of their particular argument, and it's pretty clear they had no intention of entertaining a reasoned debate." I think this speaks to a broader political/social ailment, namely that most people (here college students) do not really think things through. This isn't so much about protesting Petraeus, but fighting against a symbol. Petraeus is representative of the United States. These leftist movements on many campuses model themselves after the cultural revolution of the '60s without really understanding why or what. To me it is more of an illogical rebellion than any thought out perspective. That is why it is precisely illiberal and anti-free speech. There is no argument to be heard.

    But I think your final response is particuarly comforting. I was pleasantly surprised at the response of the student body (chants of USA for instance). However, this was unfortunately not as true in last years UNC incident or in my personal experiences as an undergraduate.

    Thanks for your comments.



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