Free minds want free speech
Letter to the editor
Mary Beth Willard, junior
The following is a response to Sean Vinck's article, "Limits of the free speech clause," (9/28/99). Mr. Vinck argues that freedom of speech "leads to destructive and harmful ends for individual souls." He may not be entirely justified in this conclusion. The fact that both sides, conservative and liberal, hypocritically object to the right free speech when that right is used to refute their arguments does not necessarily entail that free speech is in and of itself, immoral.
Therefore, arguing that free speech should be constrained because no one really follows it anyway is absurd. Granting him that point however, and assuming that the free exchange of ideas endangers immortal souls, in one limited sense, he may be correct. I assert, however, that limiting the exchange of ideas might be equally as hazardous to our moral health.
Let's assume that Notre Dame holds position A, and there is a contrary position B. We wish to ban B because it is fundamentally immoral, whereas A is believed to be true. This assumes, however, that 1) we are certain that A is a correct and 2) there is nothing to be gained by discussing point B. Mr. Vinck argues from the assumption that A is supported by the Church and A is therefore true. Leaving that can of worms aside for the moment, the fact remains that there is much to be gained by discussing B. B could serve as a contrast to A, helping us to better understand what is meant when an authority asserts A. By discussing B critically, adherents of A might be able to convince the "heretical" B crowd of the error of their ways. If B is illogical or wrong, by bringing it forth for discussion we can refute it, thus making us cling more tightly to that true idea A. If we never hear B in a context where we can determine that it is false, then we stand more likely to be shaken by a weak argument for B. By acknowledging and discussing B, the soul will rest confident knowing that it has seen the opposition and its corrupting capabilities, and yet, the truth of A still remains.
But, what if A is wrong! Simply citing an authority (here the Church, but the point applies broadly) does not make it correct. History is littered with the bodies of absolutely, 100 percent right, obvious, self-evident ideas that were proven wrong and discarded. In such a case, B might serve to help us revise our own beliefs so that they are more correct. It is presumptuous to behave as though one has a monopoly on truth, when so often that has been shown to be false. And, when, as Sean Vinck asserts, immortal souls hang in the balance, you'd best be certain that what you teach is absolutely perfect before you exclude all other ideas.
Now, such a position as I have detailed above does not mean that I consider all opinions equally correct or worthy. I believe some things are right and others wrong. But allowing the proposition, explanation, or defense of a contrary idea does not imply that you condone what it says. I believe then, that discussion, examination and even dissection of ideas leads eventually to the synthesis of a new, better idea that may well be the elusive truth for which we all search. In that, freedom of speech contains its own intrinsic value.
Mary Beth Willard
September 28, 1999
All Viewpoint Stories for Wednesday, September 29, 1999