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Free Speech - Casualty of War?

9 January 2002

At college commencements over the years, I've heard everyone from judges to actors; governors to comedians. Some celebrated the graduates' pasts, others focused on the future. Some were serious, others irreverent; some reserved, others reminiscent of a football rally.

There is no single way to address graduates and their families.

The attempt to characterize Janis Besler Heaphy's speech at California State University at Sacramento as "out of place" is therefore specious, as is the effort to justify the booing and jeering that cut it short.

The Sacramento Bee publisher chose to address key issues of the day in thoughtful, well-researched remarks. In the controversy that has followed the speech, her critics have raised two general charges about it:

The first challenges her patriotism. These critics charge that the magnitude of the Sept. 11 tragedy should have precluded public condemnation of such government responses as racial profiling and military tribunals.

The text of the unfinished talk, however, reveals full support of the war on terrorism, though Heaphy did not confuse patriotism with what Randolph Bourne in World War I characterized as the zeal of many Americans to make themselves unthinking "instruments of ends announced from above."

The second charge avoids the issue of patriotism and contends that Heaphy was ill-advised and disrespectful of students' families to talk about terrorism and its aftermath at all. Her choice of topics was "iffy," opined one student leader.

"The students were tired of hearing about Sept. 11," said another.

Such spokesmen have learned too well the method of the American media, to focus on peripheral matters of strategy and timing rather than on real questions of substance.

Would a harangue supporting the assault on Kandahar have evoked the same etiquette? Faulting Heaphy's choice of topics seems milder than impugning her patriotism, but is a ctually more troubling. It suggests that discussion of major public events should be censored altog ether out of academic ceremonies. Maybe promoters of this charge had looked forward to the ritual promises of success and unlimited opportunity, worsening conditions notwithstanding.

Have the critics shown that anything Heaphy said was wrong or inaccurate?

Is it untrue that civil liberties are often casualties of war? That racial or ethnic profiling and suspension of suspects' rights impair the freedoms we're supposedly defending? That the media should keep us informed -- even when news is "unpleasant or unsettling"?

Plainly not. And citizens of a state that has seen the wartime repression of ethnic and political minorities -- the internment of the Japanese, Zoot-suit riots and Hollywood blacklist -- should know better.

The world changed on Sept. 11. We do not know fully how yet, nor how those changes will affect the lives that the CSU graduates are now commencing.

Heaphy showed profound respect for them and their families by talking about the real situation in that world, and addressing them as thoughtful people concerned about their freedoms. Of course, her remarks were political. Defending civil liberties, debate and due process are political tasks essential for her journalistic labors, our teaching at CSU Sacramento and, indeed, for the public life of all citizens.

Unfortunately, Heaphy made her comments at a time when we are witnessing a growing culture of intolerance and demagoguery. A public university is supposed to be a bulwark against such a culture. Its vocation is to impart knowledge and train citizens, to help create a larger public capable of learning from history and debating the major questions before it. Thankfully, it was the guests and their families -- not CSU Sacramento graduates -- who did the heckling.

The real question posed by the incident at ARCO Arena is about this deeper clash of cultures -- a clash within America. It is a clash we've seen before, that now resurfaces under the sponsorship of the White House. It pits those who insist on their right to question and refuse to be stampeded against those who want the reassurance of conformity and blind trust. It contrasts the spirit of citizens, to employ Tocqueville's distinction, with that of subjects.

Those who are committed to asking questions of our leaders and requiring answers need to respond not to a random act of rudeness but to this deeper domestic conflict. They need to respond publicly and vigorously.

Dec. 15 showed us the very danger Heaphy meant to warn us about. Her mistake, if any, was not that she prepared this speech, but that she failed to foresee that what she ultimately feared would already be sitting in the bleachers in fron t of her.

Jeff Lustig.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
2002 San Francisco Chronicle.

Index page on Response to attacks in US


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