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Have we forgotten how to agree to disagree?

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Randy Evans.jpg

Randy Evans

My friend Denny and I were as different as night and day. He was conservative; I was wasn’t. I accused him of being to the right of Atilla the Hun. He accused me of working for Pravda, the famed Communist party newspaper.

We thoroughly enjoyed poking each other this way. It was invigorating to hash over issues that were bubbling up in rural Iowa, at the Capitol in Des Moines, or out in Washington.

But when all was said and done, neither of us would do or say anything to undermine our respect and admiration for the other.

Sadly, Denny is gone and I miss our debates. I am confident we would have found common ground these days over the free-speech turmoil that has embroiled some college campuses around the United States.

And we would have wondered whether such turmoil will be visited upon the University of Iowa this month when the national conservative commentator Matt Walsh speaks there.

Four hundred people have signed an online petition opposing Walsh’s lecture on April 19 at the Iowa Memorial Union. He was invited by the Iowa Young Americans for Freedom student organization.

The speech is part of Walsh’s nationwide “What is a woman?” lecture and documentary tour in which he discusses transgender and gender identity issues. Last year he said “gender ideology is one of the greatest evils in human history.”

Petition organizers oppose Walsh’s appearance in Iowa City. They argue he is “prone to violence and a danger to the University of Iowa’s community at large.” The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported some petition signers have left comments like, “We do not need to platform openly fascist people at our university.”

In recent years, members of the Iowa Legislature have criticized the three state universities over accusations that administrators have stifled free speech rights, especially of conservatives. The University of Iowa and Iowa State University have lost expensive lawsuits over their treatment of student organizations that espouse views that may differ from other students or administrators.

The Iowa Board of Regents responded by adopting a freedom of expression policy that says, “It is not the responsibility of the universities to shield individual members of the campus community from viewpoints they may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.”

The solution is not to shout down speakers with whom people might disagree. Instead of protests that disrupt events, a better outcome that advances everyone’s knowledge and understanding of controversial topics is letting speakers speak and then organizing other events that expose people to contrary perspectives.

While Iowans will be watching to see if problems occur with Walsh’s lecture, it was clear last month in California what direction the current hot political climate is taking us.

Stuart Kyle Duncan of Baton Rouge, La., a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, was invited to speak at the Stanford University law school. But his speech was cut short when students heckled him relentlessly for views he expressed well before being appointed to the court and for his legal writings — on issues ranging from a ban on gay marriage, to restrictions on bathrooms transgender people can use, to the pronouns he would use to refer to transgender people.

Whether you think Duncan is a legal light or a dim bulb, the reception he received at Stanford should embarrass everyone who believes in freedom of speech, civility, and the importance of a robust dialogue in American society. The Stanford law students missed an opportunity to hear what the judge came to say and then to respectfully question his views on an array of legal issues.

After all, that is what lawyers spend their careers doing — helping to mediate society’s differences.

Legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky puts the issue at play at Stanford and potentially in Iowa City this way: “Freedom of speech does not protect a right to shout down others so they cannot be heard.”

Jenny Martinez, the dean of the Stanford law school, issued a lengthy statement to faculty and students after the national fallout from the Duncan incident. Even if you have never been in a courtroom, her comments merit attention.

“Some students have argued that the disruptive protest of the event was itself constitutionally protected speech,” she wrote. “But the First Amendment does not give protestors a ‘heckler’s veto.’ ”

Martinez went on: “I believe that the commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion actually means that we must protect free expression of all views. …

“Students calling for the law school administration to restrict the organization or the speakers it can bring to campus are demanding action inconsistent not only with freedom of speech but with rights to freedom of association that civil rights lawyers fought hard in the twentieth century to secure.”

Martinez said all of this goes beyond issues of law school decorum and university policies.

“The cycle of degenerating discourse won’t stop if we insist that people we disagree with must first behave the way we want them to,” she said. “The cycle stops when we recognize our responsibility to treat each other with the dignity with which we expect to be met. It stops when we choose to replace condemnation with curiosity, invective with inquiry.”

My friend Denny would agree. I do.

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