Even Westboro Deserves Free Speech

In the days before Westboro Baptist Church came to picket outside of Hillel, all kinds of students offered their perspectives on what the appropriate response ought to be.  One was particularly striking: allowing Westboro’s awful message on campus demonstrates the problem of free speech, that it isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Indeed, Westboro travels the country, encouraging suicide and agitating for awareness that earthquakes like in Haiti are a result of gay marriage, and that gay marriage will cause divine judgment on all of California.  They try to spread hate for Jews, gays, and our men and women in uniform.  Their message is clear.  But that clarity makes it even more obvious what their message really is: hateful and wrong.

Yet the perversity of their words doesn’t automatically mean they should be banned from saying them.  Rather, one could argue they were even beneficial to hear.  By adding Westboro to the university discussion, it created an opportunity for different communities to come together over our common values.

When discussing censorship in On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote, “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.

“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth:  if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

In other words, thanks to Westboro’s presence, Stanford recognized their errors and rallied around respect and dignity for all people.  Having come into clearer focus, more people were reminded of these principles by coming out to support their friends in the face of Westboro’s hate.

One student estimated that there were hundreds of students on the lawns of Hillel and Sigma Nu, thanks to the leadership of the Jewish Students Association.  The range of JSA’s diverse cosponsors, including nearly every major ethnic and religious student group as well as other organizations from the ASSU Executive to the band to Izzy’s Bagels on California Avenue, was inspiring.

Stanford students rose the occasion and elevated campus discussion to what unites us, not what divides us.  Had Westboro Baptist Church been silenced or prevented from standing on the corner of Mayfield and Campus, it is very unlikely that students would have come together the way they did and participated in a discussion on human dignity.  That’s a great message to keep in mind.

We recognize that the right to free speech is not absolute.  In some cases, words can be merely offensive without any productive gain.  However, in Westboro’s case, their free speech should not have been denied, because the strength of the university community allowed for a constructive discussion and response.

As a result, any challenge to free speech must be subjected to strict scrutiny.  While it would be easy to think an offensive organization like Westboro should be banned from demonstrated on campus, consider the opportunities we would have missed.

At The Stanford Review, we try to offer well thought perspectives to add to the campus discussion.  Regardless of whether we see eye to eye, we hope you will allow us to engage you.  After all, if you still disagree, as Mill says, your position and conviction will be strengthened having been exposed to an alternate viewpoint just as our campus resolve was strengthened in the face of Westboro.  Alternatively, you may come to share our opinion, having not been adequately exposed to it in the past.

We hope that the rally at Hillel marks the beginning of a new receptiveness to ideas on campus, leading to even more constructive discussions.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of The Stanford Review’s Editorial Board and do not necessarily reflect opinions of The Stanford Review or its staff. The Editorial Board consists of the Opinion Editor, the Executive Editor, and the Editor-in-Chief. To submit a letter to the editor or guest op-ed, please e-mail our Opinion Editor, Matt Sprague, at [email protected].

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Clarification: In Issue 2, the article “Initiative to Increase Understanding of U.S. Military” inaccurately stated that the Truman Service Initiative was sponsoring a student-initiated course on the military during spring quarter.  Rather, the three students who run the Truman Service Initiative, Kelly Gleischman, Courtney Khademi, and Kate Powell, just happen to be offering the student-initiated course, completely independently of Truman Service Initiative.

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