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Saturday, June 22, 2024

DLS speaker deserves to be heard

""While I disagree with what you have to say, I will defend to the death your right to say it."" Through death and a French accent, Voltaire's support of the freedom of speech rings quite pertinently today at UW-Madison.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, feminist activist and author of ""Infidel,"" will speak today as part of the long-standing Distinguished Lecture Series sponsored by the Wisconsin Union. Her voice and life story should not be excluded from the marketplace of ideas because her narrative is controversial. Her opinion should not be silenced because her ideas may offend some or are seen as a particularly inflammatory subject in an oversensitive society. If we tried to ensure no one was offended before speaking, no one would be able to talk.

In this country we hold the freedom of speech among our most valued principles. Freedom of speech fueled a revolution and has sustained our democracy as a critical part of our national identity. The university should be a bastion of free speech and open dialogue. Whether mainstream or dissenting, whether offensive or purely entertaining, all viewpoints should be tolerated, if not encouraged.

UW Professor Donald Downs, a First Amendment scholar, was kind enough to discuss how Ali's speech represents freedom of speech in action.

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""The university is a place where all ideas should be openly discussed and debated. And there can't be any exceptions to that. Otherwise someone would have to decide what's appropriate, what's not, and we can't allow that to happen.""

The campus has hosted other feminist speakers in the past who criticized what they consider patriarchal aspects of society. Whether about Christianity, Islam or the government's maternity leave policy, such debate is critical to a flourishing democracy. Hearing new viewpoints opens the door to discussion, and often solutions.

""People that strongly disagree with [Hirsi Ali's] positions have every right in the world to stand up during the Q and A and tell her why,"" said Downs. ""Rather than being some big deal, these kinds of speakers should be par for the course here.""

An activist like Hirsi Ali, who will discuss her own life story, not advocate violence or extremism, contributes exceptionally to the marketplace of ideas by sparking campus-wide discussion.

If a well-known anti-Catholic came to speak in Madison, many Catholics would undoubtedly oppose the content of the speech and would not be expected to attend. If a pro-life speaker came, the same could be said of the pro-choice community. The freedom to not hear a viewpoint is as inalienable as the freedom to express one.

However, one's personal offense toward a particular topic cannot override another person's right to discuss it. In the case of Hirsi Ali, her viewpoint, no matter how controversial, is one that she has every right to share, just as those who oppose her opinions have every right to share their own.

Words are not like physical violence—if you disagree with a message, you can close your ears and walk away. More importantly, you can speak out against any idea you oppose by contributing your rebuttal to the dialogue.

Admittedly, being denied the right to speak as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series would not silence Hirsi Ali. She could visit Madison and speak in a different forum. Her work is published in books and shared all over the Internet. That said, the student-led DLS committee decided to invite her in the name of free speech, and limiting their choices for who they can bring in to speak would damage the intellectual conversation on campus. Protecting and furthering free speech is an active, sometimes painful process. Democracy is not kept alive by inviting the most comforting speakers and least controversial ideas. Democracy and the community of ideas developed here at UW are advanced by this type of dialogue—speakers and ideas that garner attendance, start conversations and even inspire newspaper articles.

Downs would add the consideration of one more person's thoughts on the issue. ""Think of the courage it takes for [Hirsi Ali] to do what she's doing. To stand up in the face of death threats and speak for truth. That's certainly worthy of great respect, whether you agree or not.""

Jamie Stark and Matt Payne are sophomore columnists for The Daily Cardinal. Please send all feedback to opinion@dailycardinal.com. 

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