Should he speak on campus?
This question was asked at length after Brown University announced that the next speaker of The Stephen A. Ogden Jr. '60 Memorial Lecture on International Affairs would be former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Following the announcement, the Brown Daily Herald ran Op-Eds with headlines ranging from “Inviting Jeb Bush to speak is irresponsible” to “Why we must respect Jeb Bush’s right to speak.”
The conversation over the First Amendment right to freedom of speech has been regularly debated on a national level. However, college campuses have recently become a hotbed of discourse on the matter. Even today, the dispute rages on, manifesting in different forms at different places. These conversations are happening here in Rhode Island, including at Brown University.
The argument tends to boil down to two opposing sides. One stance is believing that free speech is protected by the constitution, and must be protected at all costs. The other stance is recognizing the right to free speech, but even more importantly, acknowledging that free speech can act as a way to silence, suppress, and otherize historically marginalized groups.
After threats of protest and heckling, Bush came to Brown University on April 25th, 2018 on a grey, rainy day. People trudged through the bleak weather and filled up Solomon Hall to capacity to hear Bush speak. Despite the threats, there were no signs of protest or disrespect.
Bush discussed topics ranging from immigration to economic policy, but closed his talk with what he referred to as “Jeb’s Rules.” His four rules were to penalize rather than reward toxicity, resist fake news, challenge yourself to expand your horizon, and stick to your beliefs, even when it's difficult. The audience exploded in applause in response to these points. These so called rules all related back to punishing the negative use of free speech, and staying true to your beliefs - something the liberal audience at Brown connected with.
One recurring theme of the lecture was the importance of rhetoric and word choice. Bush emphasized that treating people with respect, being mindful of other people’s experiences, and always sticking to the facts were of the utmost importance to the future of America. These points resonated with the crowd. Then, Brown Junior Colin Kent-Daggett asked about the distinction and relative importance of rhetoric and policy.
Kent-Daggett noted that like Trump, Bush is skeptical of climate change, is pro-life, and is against gay marriage. Which should be valued more: the content of the message or the words used to convey it? Bush explained that he has his own views, but in arguing for them, he is never judgmental. He doesn’t disparage, he persuades. To end his response, Bush simply said, “You may think I’m a bad person, but you need to get over it.” In an interview after the lecture, Kent-Daggett said, “It’s not that conservatives shouldn’t be allowed to come. More, its a waste of time to pay someone with outdated and over-represented views.”
The topic of free speech has become an increasingly partisan issue, and many are sticking to their party lines. The government protects everyone’s voice through the First Amendment, and many believe that this should never, under any circumstance, be infringed upon. Still, there are others who sense of empathy for the disparaged is strong enough to place self-imposed restrictions on speech. Just because something can be said, does not mean something always should be said.
Bush had views that Brown students vehemently disagreed with. While Brown student’s, such as Kent-Daggett, politely called Bush out on his beliefs in a Question and Answer session, no one stopped the speech. There were moments of uncomfortable silence and noticeable murmurs from the crowd after Bush made right-winged remarks, but people listened with respect. Brown student’s took one of Bush’s quotes to heart, standing by the idea that, “Decency is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of American strength.”
Empathy took precedence over aggressive language in Solomon hall that day. Bush spoke at Brown just nine days after his mother's death, and recited a quote from her that is at the heart of the free speech debate for most Brown students.
He said, “Never lose sight of the fact that the most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat other people - your family, friends, and coworkers, and even strangers you meet along the way.”