“Silencing Free Speech,” an open forum that explored the layers of free speech in American politics and on campus, was held Thursday night in Galbreath Chapel.
Kimberley Strassel, a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, was invited to campus by the George Washington Forum to open a discussion about how the First Amendment has been silenced at Ohio University, in the political arena and by government officials.
Strassel’s lecture began by revolving around themes from her book, “The Intimidation Game: How the Left Is Silencing Free Speech,” which is about how politically-motivated organizations use intimidation tactics like calling on federal bureaucracies to go after political opponents.
The best example, she said, being the recent scandal involving the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative non-profit organizations applying for tax-exempt status.
“But we also see it against individuals, and this is the thing that scares me the most. Many of you in the audience may think this is what happens in the rough and tumble of politics, but it’s happening to average people too,” Strassel said.
She provided an example of a group of Californians who gave money in favor of a ballot initiative that opposed gay marriage. Strassel recalled how activists went through financial disclosure records and compiled the names and addresses of gay marriage opponents into searchable databases.
“Many people had this enormous disruption in their life for the crime of expressing their political viewpoints,” Strassel said. “These are not accidents, this is now a strategy by many people and organizations. And one of their favorite weapons that they use is what we saw in California with these disclosure laws.”
When the open discussion commenced, many audience members questioned the role of the federal and state government when it relates to free speech versus hate speech.
“I came mostly because she was talking about free speech and we’re having some challenges on campus surrounding free speech versus hate speech.” said Winsome Chunnu, director of the Multicultural Center. “I know it’s still, for students, a gray area … I wanted to get a little bit more clarification, since this is her area of expertise where she stood.”
The George Washington Forum has invited speakers like Strassel to campus since 2009 and “teaches America’s foundational principles in their Western intellectual, political, and institutional contexts,” its website reads.
“I think there needs to be sort of contentious debate on campus and in a sort of managed and civilized way,” said Robert Ingram, director of the forum and associate professor of history at OU.
“I hope tonight was sort of a model of that. Where people clearly had firm viewpoints on this and sometimes contentious but they came to a space and debate civilly with someone who might disagree,” Strassel said. “It didn’t devolve into shouting, that struck me as a good thing.”
Strassel said that college campuses have been long relied upon to have vigorous debates and should be a “safe zone for the First Amendment.”
“If we go back all through history and college campuses … this was a place for vigorous back and forth and how we came up with some of our best ideas,” Strassel said. “If we can’t do it here, where else are we going to do it?”
The next George Washington Forum event will be “Election 2016: The Rise of American Populism” with Ben Domenech in Galbreath Chapel on November 1, 2016.