Defending free speech should be a slam dunk

The principles of freedom of speech and freedom of association are wonderful, as long as you only speak acceptable speech and only associate with acceptable people. Once you stray from the narrow path, you should lose those rights. Right?

Of course not. That is an incredibly short-sighted and foolish position. Unfortunately, it seems to be one espoused more and more often nowadays.

You might expect that perspective from totalitarian regimes like China or Cuba. The former locked up Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in 2009. The charge? “Inciting subversion of state power.” He had the audacity to sign his name to a petition seeking basic human rights. But, in a shining example of magnanimity, the Chinese Communist Party released him from prison on June 26, 2017. He died three weeks later.

Meanwhile, our island neighbor to the south is no longer ruled by Fidel Castro or members of his family. Yet journalists are still arrested on charges of “journalism without authorization,” and political reform advocates get placed in solitary confinement without visitation from family members, as such visits are not “contributing to [their] re-education.”

This stands in stark contrast to our American tradition: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words rightfully inspire still today. And among the “liberty” with which we are endowed is the right to think our own thoughts, speak our opinions aloud, and associate with those whom we choose. Whatever our political differences, these ideals should unite us.

But unfortunately, that’s not always the case. When Daryl Morey, General Manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, tweeted in support of the protests in Hong Kong, Big Basketball came crashing down upon him. The NBA didn’t want to lose access to China’s market due to someone’s pro-freedom opinion. LeBron James — one of the league’s biggest stars — piled on as well. “Yes, we do all have freedom of speech. But at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others and you’re thinking about yourself,” James said. His statement sounded as if it could have been written by Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was certainly a far cry from Liu Xiaobo’s principled stand in favor of freedom. 

A demonstrator holds a U.S. flag during a rally at the Southorn Playground in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. Protesters in Hong Kong have thrown basketballs at a photo of LeBron James and chanted their anger about comments the Los Angeles Lakers star made about free speech during a rally in support of NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, whose tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests touched off a firestorm of controversy in China. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Closer to home, there are efforts afoot to prohibit speech that certain people dislike — and to abolish groups that others deem unworthy of exercising this basic freedom. 

The University of Maine is meant to be a bastion of intellectual freedom. It should be a “safe space” in the best possible way; a location where students can push (and sometimes cross) boundaries. People should be held to account for their statements and opinions, but through reasoned debate and informed discourse.

The College Republicans in Orono and their philosophically-aligned groups are not strangers to boundary-pushing. The UMaine Young Americans for Liberty, for example, rightly ridiculed the university administration last spring for putting up signs reading “Designated Free Speech Zone.” It is an Orwellian phrase, more Jinping than Xiaobo, more Castro than Jefferson.

With the ongoing debate over the appropriate name for the holiday occurring on October’s second Monday, the College Republicans entered the fray. They published a Facebook post supporting Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro and drew analogies between stories of Aztec human sacrifice and the conquest and slavery that followed Columbus’ voyage to the Americas.

The university distanced itself from the group’s posting. Yet, to their credit, Vice President Robert Dana explicitly affirmed that UMaine supports “every student’s right to free speech and to meandering through the marketplace of ideas.”

Others are not so supportive. According to a Facebook event page, an array of left-leaning groups are cosponsoring a “rally scheduled in response to the GOP students. If that was all, it would be a reasonable reaction to an opinion they find objectionable.

Yet they have gone further. The organizers’ stated “focus” for the rally? Get the school to “disband racist and fascist groups under the guise of political student groups on campus consciously abusing ‘freedom of speech’ to spread hate speech.” The avowed goal? “[D]isband College Republicans and demand institutional change for admin solutions around how they deal with racism on campus.”

To borrow a quote popularly — albeit mistakenly — ascribed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This idea is given life through the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of association. They are hallmarks of our shared American heritage and have become recognized as universal human rights. LeBron James and left-leaning Mainers would do better to emulate Xiaobo and Jefferson rather than Castro and Jinping.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.