Four moments in the recent annals of free speech in America. Actually annals is too fancy a word. This all happened in the past 10 days:
At Columbia University, members of the Minutemen, the group that patrols the U.S. border with Mexico and reports illegal crossings, were asked to address a forum on immigration policy. As Jim Gilchrist, the founder, spoke, angry students stormed the stage, shouting and knocking over chairs and tables. “Having wreaked havoc,” said the New York Sun, they unfurled a banner in Arabic and English that said, “No one is ever illegal.” The auditorium was cleared, the Minutemen silenced. Afterward a student protester told the Columbia Spectator, “I don’t feel we need to apologize or anything. It was fundamentally a part of free speech. . . . The Minutemen are not a legitimate part of the debate on immigration.”
On Oct. 2, on Katie Couric’s “CBS Evening News,” in the segment called “Free Speech,” the father of a boy killed at Columbine shared his views on the deeper causes of the recent shootings in Amish country. Brian Rohrbough said violence entered our schools when we threw God out of them. “This country is in a moral freefall. For over two generations the public school system has taught in a moral vacuum. . . . We teach there are no moral absolutes, no right or wrong, and I assure you the murder of innocent children is always wrong, including abortion. Abortion has diminished the value of children.” This was not exactly the usual mush.
Mr. Rohrbough was quickly informed he was not part of the legitimate debate, either. Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post: “The decision . . . to air his views prompted a storm of criticism, some of it within the ranks of CBS News.” A blog critic: Grief makes people say “stupid” things, but “what made them put this man on television?” Good question. How did they neglect to silence him?
Soon after, at Madison Square Garden, Barbra Streisand, began her latest farewell tour with what friends who were there tell me was a moving, beautiful concert. She was in great form and brought the audience together in appreciation of her great ballads, which are part of the aural tapestry of our lives. And then . . . the moment. Suddenly she decided to bang away on politics. Fine, she’s a Democrat, Bush is bad. But midway through the bangaway a man in the audience called out. Most could not hear him, but everyone seems to agree he at least said, “What is this, a fund-raiser?”
At this, Ms. Streisand became enraged, stormed the stage and pummeled herself. Wait, that was Columbia. Actually she became enraged and cursed the man. A friend who was there, a liberal Democrat, said what was most interesting was Ms. Streisand made a physical movement with her arms and hands—“those talon hands”—as if to say, See what I have to put up with when I attempt to educate the masses? She soon apologized, to her credit. Though apparently in the manner of a teacher who’d just kind of lost it with an unruly and ignorant student.
On “The View” a few days earlier it was Rosie O’Donnell. She was banging away on gun control. Guns are bad and should be banned. Elizabeth Hasselbeck, who plays the role of the young, attractive mom, tentatively responded. “I want to be fair,” she said. Obviously there should be “restrictions,” but women have a right to defend themselves, and there’s “the right to bear arms” in the Constitution. Rosie accused Elizabeth of yelling. The panel, surprised, agreed that Elizabeth was not yelling. Rosie then went blank-faced with what someone must have told her along the way is legitimately felt rage. Elizabeth was not bowing to Rosie’s views. Elizabeth needed to be educated. The education commenced, Rosie gesturing broadly and Elizabeth constricting herself as if she knew physical assault were a possibility. When Rosie gets going on the Second Amendment I always think, Oh I hope she’s not armed!