As we commemorate Veterans Day this week to “thank and honor living veterans who served honorably in the military,” special appreciation is due Bryan Stascavage, a veteran currently attending Wesleyan University.
In a recent op-ed in the Wesleyan Argus, Stascavage wrote that he “talked to a Black Lives Matter supporter, Michael Smith ’18, who recoiled when I told him I was wondering if the movement was legitimate.”
Stascavage wrote that he was “not questioning their claims of racism among the police, or in society itself,” but rather, if the movement is “actually achieving anything positive. Does it have the potential for positive change?”
Reaction was swift.
“The opinion piece unleashed a firestorm of criticism, first directed at Stascavage and later at the school newspaper and its editors,” reported Fox News. “Stascavage said he’s been called a racist by students on campus, while some activists are calling on the school’s student government to defund the newspaper.”
Regardless of what one thinks about the Black Lives Matter movement or the imprudent reactions of Wesleyan students, Stascavage has done Americans a critical service by reminding us of the First Amendment’s importance to our country.
Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth responded to the controversy by explaining that “debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are uncomfortable.”
Roth added, “As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our opinions, but there is no right not to be offended. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.”
How fitting that a military veteran – a member of that revered group of Americans who have served to keep America free – should remind us of this most important freedom: the freedom of speech.
While gun rights, the Second Amendment, and unyielding supporters dominate the headlines these days, the First Amendment unassumingly but assuredly reigns supreme as the civil liberty that defines American democracy.
The very father of our country, George Washington, said it himself: “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
It’s a point that Republican presidential hopefuls might want to consider. If they did, they might not be so “uniformly upset that the [CNBC debate] moderators would presume to ask difficult questions of people aspiring to be president.”
Moreover, perhaps Ted Cruz, one of the Republican presidential wannabes, might reconsider his desire to control the journalists who moderate their debates.
Somehow, I don’t think Bryan Stascavage – a Republican as well as a military veteran – would like to see the Republican debates so favorably orchestrated. Stascavage clearly understands that political issues are complex concepts that require real discussion – not unquestioned, absolute decrees.
As an example, Stascavage explains in his renowned op-ed how “Kim Davis, the misguided clerk who is refusing to hand out marriage licenses, is a perfect example” of the tendency to oversimplify and stereotype the issues.
“As a conservative, it is infuriating to see one clerk in one city out of the thousands in conservative states making headlines, when the rest are handing out licenses with no issue. One clerk is making headlines and is being held up as evidence that conservatives hate homosexuality. Kim Davis generated a couple hundred supporters, a very small showing.”
Measured, thought-provoking, and opinionated. No doubt, the very type of speech foreseen by the framers of the Constitution when they penned the Bill of Rights.
So on this Veterans Day, a special thank you to Bryan Stascavage for serving his country and for reminding us of the enduring prominence of free speech.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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