The real threat to free speech at UT

By Robert Jensen

with Rahul Mahajan

Published in Austin American-Statesman · February, 2000

[This article appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, February 4, 2000, p. A-15, and Houston Chronicle, February 9, 2000, p. 31A.]

In truly Orwellian fashion, University of Texas officials and a recent American-Statesman editorial have tried to paint UT student activists’ attempt to promote spirited political debate as an attack on free speech.

When the director of the LBJ Library announced that he had advised Henry Kissinger to cancel his planned Feb. 1 lecture, we were accused by UT’s chancellor and president of “threatening to endanger public safety” through the use of “immoral” tactics. These charges are, quite frankly, silly, as the failure of these officials to give evidence of the threat or even specify the nature of the danger reveals. Not surprisingly, our invitation to the officials for a public debate about the issues has been rejected.

We have helped organize dozens of political protests and forums in Austin in the past two years, none of which have been violent; this one would have been no different. We did not plan to suppress anyone’s speech. Instead, we wanted to engage in free speech by distributing literature that highlighted Kissinger’s crimes and by talking to people at the event.

More important, we wanted Kissinger to speak, and in fact speak more than he usually does in response to tough questions about his role in the subversion of democracy and violations of international law around the world. We wanted to ask him what he said to Gen. Suharto in a meeting two days before the Indonesian dictator used U.S.-supplied weapons to begin the genocide in East Timor in 1975. Why did he work so hard to undermine the democratically elected government of Chile in the 1970s? How does he feel knowing that hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died in the “secret” war he planned there in 1969?

We planned to do what citizens in a democracy have a right, and a moral obligation, to do — hold someone who made policy accountable for his decisions. Free speech does not mean a free ride for policy-makers who support dictators, genocide and illegal wars.

Charges that we restricted Kissinger’s speech are ludicrous. It was LBJ Library officials who cut off his opportunity to speak using manufactured fears of threats to public safety. Furthermore, Kissinger is not lacking in opportunities to speak, especially through the mass media.

Political dissidents do not get the ongoing opportunities to be heard at great length that Kissinger enjoys. That is why we use face-to-face discussion, civil disobedience and protest, strategies that have won many of the civil rights we now take for granted. Such protests are much admired by people in power — in theory, and so long as they are comfortably in the past. But if we use peaceful protest effectively in the present, it is likely that police violence will be unleashed, as it was against non-violent protesters in Seattle.

We take seriously the role of a university, not simply to tolerate political discourse but to promote it actively. For democracy to be meaningful, political discourse must be critical of powerful people and institutions. The late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan said it best in a landmark free-speech case: Such debate must be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” and “may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

The UT administration has shown that it is ready to fabricate charges in order to demonize dissent, a dangerous sign. The American-Statesman’s editorial uncritically passed along these distortions. The chilling effect of such developments is the real threat to free speech.