Prepare to challenge speech, not silence it

It has been more than a week since Lucian Wintrich tried to give a speech on the Storrs campus of the University of Connecticut, only to have the event end in a melee featuring someone grabbing Wintrich’s notes, his wrestling with the female purloiner, a broken window, a smoke bomb and arrests.

This all trended well on social media platforms, of course, and gained plenty of play on cable news networks. We suspect many  substantive campus lectures were presented in the days before and since, all destined for obscurity because nothing stupid happened.

This odd event encapsulated so much that is wrong with the status of our national dialogue.

It is the sideshow that demands attention, a reality that contributed to our first entertainer-in-chief president.

Meanwhile, too many college campuses have become intolerant of speakers who don’t fit into a secularist, environmentally sensitive, diversity prioritizing, peace-loving, pro-choice, and government-assisting dogma.

Speakers with alternative views, who hold religious beliefs that they see as taking priority over aspects of that dogma, or say diversity should not top merit in any selection process, or prioritize jobs and growth over the environment, and military preparedness over hopes for peace, are viewed as being unworthy of even being listened to.

The problem with not accepting the challenge of hearing opposing views is that you don’t develop the ability to defend your positions. When someone is so confident their positions are the right ones, and simply want to hear them re-enforced and never challenged, it becomes far too easy to goad them into anger.

This is true not only of PC-adhering liberal college students but of Fox News and conservative talk radio-only listeners and MSNBC-exclusively devotees.

The 29-year-Wintrich knew this. He knew his provocatively labeled “It’s OK to be White” speech would trigger an angry response on the UConn campus. That would get him the attention he craved, and the opportunity to dismiss Storrs as another bastion of liberal intolerance.

Wintrich is a huckster. His Gateway Pundit blog plays around the edges of white supremacy and indulges in alt-right conspiracy theories. The website's fervent pro-Trump coverage helped Wintrich land White House press credentials.

The UConn College Republicans club did not do itself proud by inviting a speaker who plays in the alt-right, Steve Bannon wing of the party.

That being said, Wintrich had a right to speak. Those who find his views deplorable — count us among them — but who felt not showing up in protest would have been a sign of acceptance of Wintrich’s opinions, could have turned their backs throughout his speech, booed its worst elements, and prepared to rhetorically rip him and his positions to shreds afterwards.

Instead, by not allowing him to deliver the speech, they played into Wintrich’s hands.

Most distressing in that regard is that it was a college adviser, Catherine Gregory, visiting from Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson, where she is director of career services and advising, who chose to physically grab Wintrich’s notes and walk off. What a sorry example to set.

Listening to and then rebutting Wintrich’s ignorant provocations would not have gained the large social media attention that the physical altercation attracted. Many fewer would have heard of him. That’s a good thing.

Instead, Wintrich tried to grab back his papers from Gregory, leading to his arrest for breach of peace. Craziness ensued.

In the wake of the Wintrich debacle, UConn President Susan Herbst on Monday announced a new rule that will prohibit speakers judged to be a "danger to our community." Could that mean blocking a conservative speaker whose views are considered so outside the mainstream views of the "community" that they could generate a violent reaction? This new rule has that potential and that's troubling.

This republic was built on the concept that a clash of opposing views leads to consensus and compromise, providing a policy path forward, an approach that must include the recognition that no side is 100 percent correct.

If instead we have come to a place where only particular views, whether from the left or right, are seen as deserving attention and where any retreat from respective dogmas is considered unacceptable, then our republic faces a dark time. And that’s a lesson more than just college campuses need to contemplate.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.


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