Free Speech and Democracy

Set Up: I get a message from a friend. “You must see this … ” This is an approximately 30-minute video. UCSB students (mostly students of color) argue in front of the Associated Students Senate against allowing a conservative commentator and editor-in-chief of Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro, to appear on campus at the invitation of the College Republicans, sponsored by Young America’s Foundation. Their main concern, as I understand it: his speech upsets minority students and “ … makes them uncomfortable to the point where they are not able to focus on their schoolwork because they are busy mobilizing … ” At the end, protests notwithstanding, Ben Shapiro is allowed to speak. This I had to judge for myself.

Event: On Tuesday, by 6:30 p.m., Campbell Hall is packed to the gills, not an empty seat in the house. Dozens of people are still trying to get in. Security is not just impressive but down-right intimidating. Makes me feel like something bad is about to happen. I am among the smart ones who came early and got in. A wiry young man, articulate, down-to-Earth, erudite, and, yes, controversial at times – Ben Shapiro – takes the podium. He talks awfully fast. After approximately 45 minutes the floor is open for Q&A. Representatives of the opposition are encouraged to speak first. About 30 people form an orderly line. Questions and ideas ensue. Another hour later it is all over. At the end, people came, the guest spoke, the audience inside and out (via podcast) listened … no riots, no insults that I observed. We all survived an intelligent and civil discourse. This is exactly what immigrants, like myself, seeking democracy and freedom of speech came to this country for. As for the substance of what Ben Shapiro had to say, I paraphrase his own advice: Go to the source and make up your own mind.

Bottom Line: I cut out a few minutes before Q&A was over to beat the crowds in the parking lot. My heart was lighter and my hopes for the future — brighter. We can get along! We can communicate! We can survive the difference of opinion! Personally, only one thing that Ben Shapiro said seriously upset me. He called ADL (Anti-Defamation League) a leftist organization. There is nothing leftist about fighting anti-Semitism, which is on the rise, and combating hate against any group – minority or majority – as ADL does. Nor is there anything “leftist” (at least in this country, I am glad to say) about protecting free speech – including speech by Republicans on campuses – as ADL does. No whining from me, though, I can take it. I know that ADL, among others, disagree with Shapiro on a number of issues, but I am convinced the worst thing we can do is to stop listening to one another and deprive each other of the right to speak our minds.

Marina Stephens is a member of the Advisory Board Anti-Defamation League/Tri-Counties.

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