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Jewish World Review Jan. 7, 2001 / 23 Teves, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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Is free speech un-American? -- IT has long been evident that many college students have been badly educated in why they are Americans. If they were told that Bismarck said the most remarkable invention in world history was the American Constitution and its Bill of Rights, their eyes would glaze over.

Conservative student newspapers have been stolen and burned, and conservative speakers have been booed down on many campuses. Last year in New York, when I wrote in support of a proposal to mandate the teaching of American history at the city university, I was attacked by several of its department heads for being jingoistic. Actually, as the American Council of Alumni and Trustees has shown, most of the nation's elite colleges and universities do not require courses in our history or Constitution.

On Dec. 15, during a commencement ceremony at California State University, Sacramento, Janis Besler Heaphy, president and publisher of a prominent newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, attempted to talk to the more than 10,000 graduates, families and guests about American values.

She was booed off the stage after five minutes of her eight-minute speech. She supports our war against terrorism, telling them the Sept. 11 attack was an "assault on everything American. On American values. On the American way of life. ... We have been reminded of how lucky we are to be Americans."

And surely, she continued, "steps had to be taken to protect our homeland." But -- and here the angry heckling from the audience began -- "Specifically, to what degree are we willing to compromise our civil liberties in the name of security?"

She expressed concern that the FBI is now empowered to listen in on conversations between detainees suspected of unproved links to terrorism and their attorneys. And, she noted, many of the detainees "have been stripped of their rights to due process."

Heaphy also expressed concern about racial profiling in the questioning of 5,000 Middle Eastern men here on temporary visas.

As the boos and shouts from the audience became more insistent, the beleaguered speaker asked what the president's creation of military tribunals says "about our willingness to suspend a suspect's rights."

She said: "I absolutely agree with President Bush. Our liberty will not be assured until terrorism is wiped out. But ... we should question what the long-term effect of the administration's recent policies will have on our values."

With three minutes left of her speech, she could no longer be heard, and left the stage. The majority of the letters and e-mails to her newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, attacked her -- not those who suppressed her First Amendment right to speak.

Said one indignant writer: "The graduates deserved and expected a speaker who was inspirational and motivational. Heaphy, instead, chose to deliver an emotional, depressing speech that had nothing to do with the Class of 2001."

It is clear that Heaphy's "depressing" speech was intended to get the students to think about the decisions being made by our government that, she told them, "will shape America's future -- your future. As you take your role in society, you'll have the chance -- through words and deeds -- to impact those decisions. We need your perspective. We need your thinking."

Instead, as Robert Salladay of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, the fallout from her speech "is continued evidence of how dramatically public discourse has changed since Sept. 11," including, he added, John Ashcroft's warning that those who criticize his actions are aiding the terrorists.

As Sacramento Bee columnist Daniel Weintraub wrote, those who booed her off the stage joined "the ranks of the politically correct speech police which until now have been dominated by liberals foolishly seeking to shut down conservative speakers or to destroy college newspapers carrying their commentary."

This, at the end of her speech, is what Heaphy would have said, had she not been shouted down: "America was founded on the belief that the freedom to think as you will and speak as you think are essential to democracy. Only by exercising those rights can you ensure their continued existence."

Just who is the enemy of these American values? Heaphy, or those who exercised what is called, in law, "the heckler's veto." Heckling is protected speech -- until the speaker cannot continue. Does John Ashcroft have anything to say to the patriots who forced Heaphy and the First Amendment off the stage?

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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