Rod Miller: Higher Education, Free Speech And Hurt Feelings In The Cowboy State

Columnist Rod Miller writes, “Now UW finds itself hauled into court for abridging a preacher’s freedom of speech in the student union. … Let’ s be clear, free speech is often uncomfortable, annoying and offensive.”

RM
Rod Miller

June 23, 20234 min read

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In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I never spent a minute in class at the University of Wyoming. Despite a lot of pressure to attend UW, I chose to attend the University of Elsewhere when the time came.

Nevertheless, I love the Brown & Gold and I have a lot of friends who are UW grads. This column will likely put a burr under lot of their saddles.

It will also probably piss off the Park County Republican Men’s Full Gospel & Glee Club, as well as the Big Empty Rainbow Unicorn Coalition and Drum Circle.

Sobeit.

I will point out to y’all how the University of Wyoming has become less of an institution intent on promoting vigorous intellectual inquiry and more of a diploma mill preparing its graduates for a life pursuing participation trophies. Selah.

The example I will use is the ongoing controversy at UW wherein Old Main is trying, and failing, to balance the concept of freedom of speech with the “needs” of students to feel emotionally safe on campus.

I will contrast this atmosphere with that prevailing at a couple of the original academies that furthered Western thought — Plato’s Attican academy and Ficino’s Academy in Florence during the Italian Renaissance.

Both schools subjected students to the no-holds-barred intellectual bloodsport of pursuing truth through the Socratic method.

Ask questions, with no question forbidden. Challenge assumptions that lack verifiable and logical support. Accept as true only those notions that could survive a gauntlet of skepticism. Reject any idea based upon emotion or faith. Teach students to think for themselves.

UW’s board, staff and faculty would likely thump their chests and say, “Yeah, we proudly carry on that tradition in 21st century Wyoming.” I call bullshit.

The only four-year institution of higher learning in Wyoming recently convened The Free Expression, Intellectual Freedom and Constructive Dialogue Working Group to advise Old Main about how people should be allowed to exercise speech on campus.

Think about that. A focus group to define and regulate free speech in an academy of learning. They claim that they were not convened to explore the interaction between a preacher and transgender students, but instead were focused on the “big picture.”

Here’s the big picture.

U Dub, throughout my lifetime, does not have a stellar record when it comes to freedom of expression. The “Black 14” were kicked off the football team for trying to exercise free speech.

When former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers was invited to speak on campus several years ago, powerful alumni and donors got a case of the vapors and threatened to withdraw support if he was allowed to open his mouth on campus.

The same group of UW supporters pitched a hissy fit over the installation of Chris Drury’s sculpture “Carbon Sink,” claiming that the installation threatened Wyoming’s extractive industries and succeeded in getting the thing removed.

Now UW finds itself hauled into court for abridging a preacher’s freedom of speech in the student union.

Like I said, not a stellar record.

Let’s be clear, free speech is often uncomfortable, annoying and offensive. The concept of freedom of speech was not enshrined in the First Amendment to make everyone feel good about themselves.

If we, as citizens, allow speech to be abridged so that folks’ feelings are never hurt, we engage in intellectual dishonesty when we persist in calling it free speech. It becomes, by definition, regulated speech.

Then the only questions we can ask are, “whose speech about what is regulated, and for what reasons?” Those questions have absolutely no place in a university dedicated to free inquiry and intellectual rigor.

Norman O. Brown, head of the Philosophy Department at U. Cal Santa Cruz (home of the mighty Banana Slugs) closed his famous 1960 address to the Phi Beta Kappa initiates at Columbia with the same words that I’ll steal to close this column:

“When the knowledge is real, the test is real.”

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Rod Miller

Political Columnist