Valuing controversial dialogue

The “Chastity 101” lecture on Sept. 17 has sparked much discussion on campus. As with all controversies, this entails a diversity of opinions on the subject in question, many of them forcefully opposed to one another and most of them strongly held by those expressing them. Such controversy is of course standard fare for the campus, and for the Record. But we must resist the perennial temptation to equate those opinions with which we strongly disagree, with those opinions people should be forbidden to air in public.

In one article appearing last week, Anri Wheeler ’03 explained that she was offended by the message of the “Chastity 101” lecture, and suggested that “in the future, such speakers should perhaps just come and speak directly to groups like Newman Catholic Association [the principal sponsor of the talk]. . .they could speak behind closed doors so as not to invite a large group of people and then offend them” (“Chastity talk inappropriate” Sept. 24, 2002). This suggestion proposes the resolution of controversy by barring one controversial opinion from the public forum. As members of a community of higher learning presumably committed to the free exchange of ideas, we should all find something to frighten us in such a suggestion.

One of the pitfalls often encountered in making the important distinction between that which we dislike and that which we should prohibit is the multiplicity of meanings of the word “offensive.” Contentious debate does generally cause people to “take offense.” Condemnation or disparagement of behaviors or ideas I value, as the promotion of behaviors and ideas to which I am firmly opposed, will almost certainly on some level upset or offend me, and I believe it is in this sense that Wheeler meant her assertion that elements of the talk “shocked and offended” listeners. While a valid opinion, and an important consideration in deciding how to present ideas in public, this sense of “offense” cannot be the test of what ideas we as a community will allow to be asserted in public.

This is not to suggest that public discourse ought to be a free-for-all, or that the effect of public speech on those who hear it is not to be considered. Though Williams, as a private institution, is not unilaterally required to adopt the standards for regulation of free expression articulated by the Supreme Court, these nevertheless provide an important perspective on the issue of public discourse on this campus. The Court declared “content-based regulations are presumptively invalid,” though there are “areas of speech” which can “be regulated because of their constitutionally proscribable content”, such as “libel,” “obscenity” and “defamation.”

This standard maintains an important distinction between publicly expressed ideas which offend some people in the sense of “offend” expressed above, and those forms of expression which are offensive inherently. In other words, we cannot censor people based on what they think, (“You can’t say things I disagree with,”) but only on how they express their thoughts. Content-neutral restrictions on expression might fairly prohibit abusive language (“You don’t practice chastity? _ _ _ _ you!”), ad hominem attack (“You are an evil person because you do these things”), threats of violence (“You do what? I’ll kill you!”) or obscene or graphic material (“Look at these graphic pictures of people doing these things you oppose”).

I do not believe that anyone would assert that the two speakers of a few weeks ago did any of these things. They were not inherently offensive, despite the fact that those of opposite convictions might well have felt offended by their presentation.

I do believe that distinctions should be made between different ways opinions are shared. I agree with Wheeler that freedom of speech exists alongside the freedom not to listen. Thus, no one should be coerced or deceived into listening to a message they do not wish to hear. I disagree, however, with her implication that the posters were intentionally deceptive. The talk was, in fact, not “a Catholic perspective;” the speakers were themselves Roman Catholic, but the talk was definitely not a lecture on the teachings of the Church.

The posters did, however, fail to name the talk’s sponsors. This was unintentional, and as the person who designed the posters, I would like to apologize for the omission. It was not an effort to conceal the sponsorship of the event. On the contrary, I believe that every one of the sponsors, everyone who helped with the talk and all those who attended deserve our collective commendation for opening the campus discourse on sexuality to a new and different perspective, especially one which is obviously so controversial.