Freedom to offend anyone

• Governor Lincoln Chafee issues a proclamation making May 1st a Day of Reason. His declaration is in response to a request from an atheist association. Some folks are outraged by this recognition.
• Some students who are illegally in the country refuse to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. Their beef? It’s not their country.
• Providence College, a Roman Catholic school in Rhode Island canceled a lecture by a gay philosophy professor who was going to speak in support of same-sex marriage. The College cited a church document that says that Catholic institutions of higher learning should not honor those who act in defiance of the Church’s fundamental moral principles. Some professors object to the cancellation on the basis that academic institutions should teach students how to think critically which includes exposure to controversial ideas.
• The principal of Prout  School, a Catholic high school in south county, invited a reverend to speak to the students. The cleric reportedly belittled gays and children who were adopted or in a fractured family by telling them that their parents did not love them enough. Some parents called for the resignation of the principal for allowing their children to be exposed to this kind of rhetoric. The principal apologized for the “offense.”
So, what are we to think about the health of free speech in America, and  right here in Rhode Island? Should students be exposed to views that might be racist or anti-Semitic or anti-Islam? Should a state countenance a lack of religious belief?
Personally, while I do not share the sentiments of atheists I think the Governor cannot be faulted for allowing such a proclamation. He also made a declaration that May 1st is a day of prayer. Why would the former pronouncement be any more offensive than the latter, to those who do not believe in prayer? My own position is that the government has to permit the free speech of opposing points of view. It can either make no statement on either request or remain neutral, but it cannot just take the majority position.
Similarly, it annoys me to no end that children who are “American” enough to get a free education can diss the United States by not standing during the Pledge of Allegiance. Yet, this country’s core principles include freedom of expression. Common courtesy should require an appropriate recognition of the unifying symbol of citizenship, but this issue isn’t about manners.
The Catholic institutions are a different story as are all private institutions. Personally, I think folks should be exposed to all sides of an argument, but it is the prerogative of private institution to include only those who share its core values.
One thing is for sure. In the public sphere, the United States should not tolerate a selective championing of free speech. Those who are advocates of free speech must be consistent and stand up for free speech for all, no matter the target. Muzzling voices of opposition is not the American way. Private institutions can censor, however — even if to do so truncates education.


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