In climate of fear, people are being punished for speaking out

Sunday, October 13, 2002

After 9/11 President Bush told the nation: “Freedom and fear are at war.” One year later, fear appears to be winning — at least on the home front.

Politicians running for office run for cover on the question of war with Iraq — afraid of being branded “soft” on national security. The few who do speak out are bombarded with attack ads describing them as radical peaceniks.

Last month police in Washington, D.C., were so eager to clear the streets of messy protests that they swept up hundreds of demonstrators — some of them merely bystanders — and sent them to jail.

Does “defending freedom” require stifling dissent?

It would appear so. Consider our schools — places where students are supposed to be exposed to all sides of the debate. A few brave schools encourage open and honest discussion of war and peace. But far too many classrooms suffer from a climate of intimidation spawned by the misguided notion that “love of country” means “no questions asked.”

Exhibit A is Ian Harvey, a Florida teacher suspended and demoted in May for allegedly promoting “antiwar views” in his classroom. He was investigated only after some local veterans complained about his participation in a peace rally last December. Harvey defends his teaching as fair and balanced, claiming that the charges against him are a political witch-hunt.

Without seeing all of the evidence, I can’t judge the merits of the case against Ian Harvey. But the timing of the investigation and punishment raises troubling questions. Why is this teacher suddenly “unprofessional” after 11 years of satisfactory ratings from the school district?

Dissenting students don’t fare much better in many places. A West Virginia student — Katie Sierra — was suspended last fall for trying to form an “anarchy club” — and wearing T-shirts with messages opposing the bombing of Afghanistan. School officials claimed that Katie’s club and T-shirts were “disruptive” and should be banned.

What was the “disruption”? It seems that Katie was harassed by classmates offended by her views. Instead of stopping the harassment, the school allowed a “heckler’s veto” to censor Katie’s speech.

When Katie sued to restore her First Amendment rights, the district spent more than $75,000 fighting to keep her quiet. (This summer a jury gave something to both sides: Katie should be allowed to form her club — but the district still doesn’t have to let her wear the antiwar messages.)

Dissenting voices of people like Katie Sierra and Ian Harvey may push the buttons of many Americans, especially in a time of national crisis. But isn’t our commitment to freedom in war or peace measured by our readiness to protect the free exchange of ideas — ideas that may offend or challenge the “rightness” of our own?

Surely things are better in our colleges and universities — institutions committed to the pursuit of truth and freedom of expression.

Alas, that’s not the case. The fear factor is so high on many campuses that hundreds of college and university presidents felt compelled this week to publish an ad in The New York Times decrying widespread intimidation that drowns out free speech. The ad cites threats of death and violence against Jewish students and supporters of Israel and attacks on property connected to Jewish organizations.

Meanwhile, not to be outdone, Muslim advocates respond by claiming that the greater problem on campuses is the intimidation of Arab and Muslim students.

From the campaign trail to the ivory tower, people are increasingly afraid to speak out — and often punished if they do. At the very moment in our history when we most need the “marketplace of ideas” created by the First Amendment, far too many Americans (including some government officials) seem eager to shut down the debate.

But fear and intimidation are the enemies of democratic freedom. As the president put it after 9/11: “We’re in a fight for our principles and our first responsibility is to live by them.”

With all of these challenges, the United States remains the freest nation on Earth. But the warning signs are clear. If we allow fear to trump freedom in this present crisis, we risk losing freedom at home even as we fight to defend it abroad.