Free speech

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The University of California, Berkeley, recently cancelled the speech of Breitbart Editor Milo Yiannopoulos due to a protest that turned violent. While I see nothing wrong with nonviolent protest, I do have a problem with those trying to prevent the speech in the first place. A campus is supposed to be an open society that allows for the exchange of ideas. If you don’t want to listen to someone, that’s fine. However, you should not prevent others from doing so, even if you disagree with them.
Last year, there were a number of speakers with pro-Israel ties whose lectures were cancelled due to pressure from anti-Zionist groups. (Two examples are the cancellation of author Caroline Glick’s speech at the University of Texas at Austin and the pressure from Brown University students whose action caused trans activist Janet Mock to cancel her lecture because some funding for the event came from a Hillel chapter.) If the left is allowed to speak, then the right should also be given the opportunity. If those who support the BDS movement are allowed the stage, the same should be true for those who support Israel.
I find it particularly disturbing that this is occurring on college campuses, places where open discussion is supposed to be welcome. The purpose of a college education is to teach students to think about ideas, rather than immediately dismiss those that make them uncomfortable. A college education should challenge students by encouraging them to consider other points of views and other ways of viewing the world. The idea is not to create a uniformed group of thinkers, but to encourage original thought by expanding students’ minds – whether or not a person changes their opinion or believes their original thought was correct.
Thinking about this issue makes me wonder if I would ever limit free speech. U.S. laws do outlaw certain types of speech. According to, a site “ maintained by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on behalf of the Federal Judiciary,” the limits to free speech include those that would “incite actions that would harm others.” The free speech of students is also limited, for example, students may not “print articles in a school newspaper over the objections of the school administration” or “make an obscene speech at a school-sponsored event.” Whether or not you agree with these and other restrictions, the right of free speech is generally very broad, particularly for adults.
So, who would I not want to speak? That would depend partly on where an event was held. If it’s held by a private organization in its own space, while I might protest outside the venue, I wouldn’t prevent a person from speaking. If the speech was taking place in a public school, I would ask that the speaker be cancelled if he or she was giving out factually wrong information or, depending on the topic, would demand that someone with an opposing viewpoint be allowed to speak.
Part of my caution is that preventing people from speaking can backfire. You can’t have a free and open exchange of ideas if you limit the speakers to those from a particular viewpoint – be it left wing, right wing or moderate. In a free democratic society, we must allow people to speak, even when we’d rather not hear their voices.