If free speech is an inviolate American right, then it requires respectful listening. It would seem inarguable: speak freely, uttering contentious candor, if you wish, then extend the same courtesy to a speaker whose opinions may differ from yours.
As is painfully evident, heckling-infused listening has become the norm in our fractious environment. Examples are far too common and coarse.
Early in March, a conservative federal judge spoke at Stanford Law School, barraged by heckling from liberal law students who decided to listen with their mouths, rather than their ears. Their immaturity was shameful. They displayed behavior that bespoke an unwillingness to hear another point of view.
I question their ability to practice law without an open mind. I wonder if their clients would have to be like-minded. Further, I wonder if their spouses would feel compelled to plead allegiance to the same political opinions. While arguments would be fewer, intellectual growth would be stymied.
If you sense my disgust at close-mindedness, you are right. Stanford Law School students exemplified boorish, disrespectful behavior for one reason: they disagreed with the speaker. They missed or ignored instruction during their schooling on basic human interaction.
Voicing dissent by shouting down a speaker is childish and churlish.
For the second consecutive week, my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, draws my critical attention. Beginning last fall, when a group of students shouted down the new president during her convocation, freedom of speech has morphed into objectionable abuse.
This same group stormed Franklin Field during halftime of the 2022 Homecoming football game, delaying the game for an hour. I was flabbergasted. I still am. Free to speak and disrupt without any accountability; that’s astounding.
In their protests, the Penn students expressed concern about the school’s investment in fossil fuels; a real estate development that will tear down affordable housing (involving no university ownership) and Payment in Lieu of Taxes (Pilot) to the City of Philadelphia due to Penn’s non-profit status and lack of taxes. By the way, Penn pays $10 million annually to the city in lieu of taxes.
This cranky old man believes that free speech calls for responsibility. Students do not have a license to heckle and drown out a speaker without consequences.
Listening to another point of view is an exercise in personal growth. It takes an open mind. It calls for personal discipline. It is not meant to be easy or comfortable.
Students receive a fair measure of tolerance for their behavior. Disagreement with school policies is normal, even healthy. But failure to listen respectfully and heckle obnoxiously is beyond the pale of free speech.
Abrasive politicians often resemble raucous students. They care little about the impact of rude, disrespectful speech. Listening is irrelevant.
“Liar, liar,” so shouted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R,Ga.) as President Joe Biden spoke at his State of the Union speech on Feb. 7, 2023. Perhaps expecting Greene’s unacceptable outburst, the president dealt lightheartedly with the congresswoman’s typical uncivil discourse. I considered her interruption another glaring example of distorted listening by an irresponsible member of Congress.
Greene sought attention, epitomizing the new American way: listen barely, and then fire away with verbal broadsides. Her scowling expression became standard grist for the media. As a role model for university students, she scored a D-grade–or even lower.
Modern times seem to favor rude and offensive behavior. Media coverage feeds on this outlandishness. Sad commentary on American manners.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.