In honor of Constitution Day, the Eastern New Mexico University Political Science Society held a lecture with speaker Jeff Gentry on Wednesday, Sept. 18 in the Jack Williamson Liberal Arts building. Gentry serves as dean for the College of Fine Arts at ENMU.
Gentry expressed many points as to why he believes that in all cases, free speech should be protected. He used the quote by philosopher François-Marie Arouet (or Voltaire), who said, “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”
Gentry stated that it is up to the individual to decide what is proper or ethical speech – not up to the government or any other individual. He said that freedom of expression is something that should be respected. He used an example of when Benjamin Franklin took over as editor of the New England Courant after his brother, the former editor, was jailed for speaking out against the king.
“I don’t want to live in that kind of society, but Benjamin Franklin did and fortunately for us these memories stayed with him,” Gentry said. He stated how 65 years later, Franklin saw the Constitution ratified. Gentry stated that the First Amendment is not present in other countries. “In England, newspapers run scared because if they say anything about somebody who is prominent that they don’t like, they can get dragged into court and pay huge legal fees.”
He said this has not been the case in the United States because of the country’s strict interpretation of the First Amendment. He spoke of how there have been court cases about restraint on peoples’ free speech, and that America always seems to support more free speech. “Our country has very little legal threats to free speech and we have more laws that protect free speech than we do that limits it.”
He added that we have troubling legal threats to free speech, which include the press and their right to cover stories, as well as the credibility of journalism. He stated that American society tends to objectify and marginalize opponents. “I’m old enough to remember when, for example, presidential debates or programs like ‘Meet the Press’ would have a vigorous discussion of alternative points of view and everyone would go out afterwards and have drinks together.”
He said hopefully those days aren’t over. Gentry said there is no such thing as objective communication and that society must get rid of the view that the self’s point of view is valid. He stated that oftentimes if someone feels as though they are in the minority of a certain view, they tend to remain silent. “It really helps if we have an argument culture that permits viewpoint diversity.”
He stated that though some colleges are known to have a community that only supports one side of arguments, ENMU seems to do a great job of viewpoint diversity. He said that he supports having debates, and that he encourages people to “have conversations in which [they] will be respectful about other points of view.”
He added that in some ways the strength of free speech in America is weakening and it must be strengthened. “We need to care about other people's views as we do our own,” Gentry said. He asked, “Do we value viewpoint diversity?” He added that all communication serves an agenda, and that we should use our influence to see that other voices are heard – even if they disagree with us. He made the point that persuasion is thought of as a public good, because it allows us to listen to arguments of others. “We can disagree on topics without throwing things at each other, and that promotes viewpoint diversity. We need to have constructive campus debates,” he stated. In doing so, students can improve the argument culture.