The best universities are arenas for open, spirited debate on subjects that span the political gamut. Unfortunately some students at Winthrop University apparently can’t tolerate the free expression of a point of view that may diverge from theirs.
Last week, as the nation marked the 41st anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, Winthrop’s College Republicans distributed 3,000 tiny pink and blue flags across the campus as part of an anti-abortion protest. The flags were meant to symbolize the nearly 56 million abortions performed in the United States since the contentious court decision on Jan. 22, 1973, which made the procedure legal.
The group also screened a documentary on campus that draws comparisons between legalized abortions in the U.S. and the Holocaust in Europe during World War II. When the film was released in 2011, the Anti-Defamation League, which battles anti-Semitism and bigotry, called it “one of the most offensive and outrageous abuses of the memory of the Holocaust we have seen in years.”
This certainly was an in-your-face approach to an emotional and divisive debate – which, we suspect, is what the College Republicans intended. Abortion “is definitely a polarizing issue,” said Tyler Richardson, 21-year-old president of the group.
Within an hour of putting out the flags on the night of Jan. 19, he and others saw students stealing the flags. Later, a group of five people stomped on the flags and tried to destroy them.
Overnight, someone stole a sign that explained that each flag represented nearly 19,000 aborted fetuses since Roe v. Wade. The College Republicans wrote the same message in chalk on a nearby sidewalk as a substitute.
Richardson is right, abortion is one of the most polarizing issues in America and much of the world. And since Roe v. Wade, opposite sides have found little common ground on which they can agree.
But if there is an appropriate place for a civil and meaningful discussion of the many facets of this debate, a university campus is it. And that discussion requires tolerance of a variety of stances on both sides.
It requires, in short, a profound respect for free speech – which includes sticking pink and blue flags in the ground and showing controversial and potentially alienating movies. Stomping on or stealing the flags was less a political counter-statement than it was an effort to suppress free speech.
Let the other side make its case. Then make yours.
Simply trying to silence political opponents ends the free exchange of ideas. And that is almost always counterproductive, especially on a college campus, where intellectual ferment is the whole point.
Heed Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”