Service of Freedom of Speech

March 16th, 2015

Categories: Free Speech, Religion, Speaking Up

Free Speech

I woke up on Sunday to a rip ‘roarin conversation on WABC Radio’s Religion on the Line between co-hosts Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Deacon Kevin McCormack and their guest, Michael Meyers, president of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. The topic: The University of Oklahoma students who chanted a racist song on a bus. Two, the leaders, were already expelled from the school. Their fraternity chapter that was evicted from its house on campus was closed by the national organization.

I felt that the co-hosts  [pictured at right] were surprised by Meyers’ arguments. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik Deacon Kevin McCormack 2

Meyers said that the University president, a government employee, had no right to expel anyone because of this country’s commitment to freedom of speech. He noted that the incident happened off campus and was brought to the world by a video that nobody has to look at–they have to take action to see and hear it.

He felt that it was up to the University to do a better job of educating its students, not expel them for their words; to teach them to express their opposing ideas so that the words are challenged by words, not by punishment. He said that it’s not up to the government to teach good manners. He mocked the university president for being overly dramatic when he claimed he had a sleepless night over the incident.

He granted that as a private institution the fraternity was within its rights to punish and close the chapter.

Michael Meyers NY Civil Rights CoalitionMeyers [photo left] agreed that racism and anti-Semitism are wrong, but, he recalled, even Martin Luther King Jr. said you must let people speak.

The message of the Rabbi and the Deacon was that in religious communities, people have a moral responsibility to address [and punish] hateful or demeaning comments. They parried Meyers’ comments and said that words can be as dangerous as actions. The Deacon, who is also the principal of Xaverian High School in Brooklyn, pointed out that he is able to expel students for such actions because he works for a private institution.

While co-hosts and guest clearly didn’t agree, the segment ended with laughs by all when the Deacon said he’d like to continue the conversation with Meyers over dinner and the Rabbi, known for his quick wit and love of teasing, suggested that Meyers remember to bring his checkbook.

Where do you stand?



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13 Responses to “Service of Freedom of Speech”

  1. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik Said:

    Good piece

    As I reflected on that infamous Nazi March in Skokie years ago, I understood that Freedom of Speech protects ugly speech in public places. The best way to counter bad speech is with better speech. Religion reminds us to think higher and consider our words carefully. “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue.’ Jewish tradition cautions, Civil law protects those who make offensive pronouncements. Religious law teaches us not to make them.

  2. Martha Takayama Said:

    The situation presents a very unpleasant dilemma. However, as much as I look askance at the offensive behavior, it does seem correct that the students did it on their own time, and that unfortunately it was only incredibly ignorant and offensive, but not illegal in view of their the right to free speech. It may be that the University President’s decision was out of place either because the behavior was individual, if I understand correctly, and that the students were not acting as representatives of their school. The education to what would prevent such behavior needs to start at a very young age. However, failing that, it is the obligation of the university to try to engage in active academic and social campaigning and instruction to work at imparting some intellectual awareness to its student body. After all, its degree should represent something more than such ignorance! What is abysmally apparent is the prevalence of ignorance, thoughtlessness, primitivism, cruelty, tastelessness and immaturity on the part of these students. There is a certain hypocrisy in thinking that shutting the fraternity itself resolves the problem. Unfortunately I tend to think that fraternities are anachronisms based essentially on discrimination of one sort or another and that eliminating them as part of educational institutes is a better way of addressing at least part of this problem.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    Meyers is right on a number of counts, assuming free speech is still breathing. While a religious community has the right to establish moral standards for its flock, it may not do so for those outside its sphere — unless religious freedom may also be slipping down the drain.

    Years ago, the ACLU made the highly unpopular decision to sue on behalf of a Nazi group which wanted to march in a parade. (Forgot precisely where or when). The Nazis ended up marching. Living up to its principles, the ACLU held its nose and acted on behalf of freedom of expression.

    The unhealthy tendency to punish for unpopular thoughts appears to be gaining ground in this so called free country of ours. While I can neither agree nor disagree with what the university presidents rights are, there is little doubt that he has done freedom of expression a huge disservice.

    Just a thought: Supposing racism gains in popularity somewhere down the road. Should disapproval of that concept be squashed? How would the good clerics respond to that?

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Rabbi Potasnik,

    I would hope that these sage words that you quote–Civil law protects those who make offensive pronouncements. Religious law teaches us not to make them–are universal.

    So the question remains: what to do with those either without religious or ethical backgrounds who, like these university students/fraternity members have lost their way? Mr. Meyers says that it isn’t up to government to teach manners. Martha Takayama suggests in a comment here, that children should be taught about such issues at a young age.

    A friend [who does not access blogs] with a traditionally liberal bent was clear in his appraisal when we spoke. He felt that these students were old enough to know better and were too old to change and that they should be punished. He gave them no wiggle room.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Like you, I’m not a fan of clubs or fraternities that discriminate but many dear and near to me are. They serve a purpose and many are comfortable belonging and exult in being part of them. As with any group, they also tend to support charitable and gracious behavior or self-serving and rude behavior. Individuals in groups tend to get lost and carried away or fearful of speaking up for fear of being excluded. That’s the danger of them.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I can only speak for myself, certainly not for Rabbi Potasnik or Deacon McCormack. Based on hearing them over many Sundays, they don’t go for the popular or trendy point of view–quite the opposite on many occasions and at times they don’t agree with one another. They are gentlemanly about it as they were with Mr. Meyers. Should parents send their child to the Deacon’s private religious school, they could predict what consequences would be for infractions. As for the Rabbi, he is outspoken about anti-Semitism and racism and I don’t see him changing with the winds of fashion. And he invited Mr. Meyers on his program–he’s been the lead host for 40-some years–and didn’t cut him off. I’m not worried about freedom of expression on this program.

  7. RCF Said:

    I think there is no place for hate. It is one thing to stand up for a principle believed in by the speaker. Another to chant racist slogans “for fun.” Freedom of speech protects those who feel they must speak out as a matter of moral necessity. There was nothing moral in the actions taken by the students. They need to learn to think, look, be aware of the effect of their actions on others. It sounds as though there was almost a mob mentality in their chanting. That must not be allowed.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I don’t excuse the students however I wonder about the double standard: Rap singers generate $millions, use horrendous language in their songs and nasty word choices and few blink. The students were old enough to know better–yet had they been warned? Was the punishment expulsion because the incident was publicized? Was it so severe because “the world was watching?” Is there a valid argument that in a state school, where tax payers support some of the tuition of each student, they shouldn’t have to pay for this behavior? Should the University take steps to address racism that is present in the school?

  9. Simon Carr Said:

    I believe that chief executive officers, including university presidents, in order to do their jobs properly must have the right, without limitation, to hire and fire those in their charge. If someone disagrees with the way they make decisions, they can take their skills or trade elsewhere, and, if they wish, work/vote to see the offending CEO/president replaced. If this president wishes to expel two students, more power to him to do so.

    I found belonging to a fraternity when I was in college rewarding. Granted, most of our members went on to careers as writers or staffers and columnists for influential publications such as the “New York Times” or the “New Yorker,” as academics or professionals in fields such as the law and medicine, and as public servants like a number of career diplomats, state governors, senators and at least one presidential candidate. Members then knew better than to behave as stupidly sophomoric as these boys did. For human beings to seek to gather together with kindred souls is only natural, and there is nothing wrong with it.

    Dachshunds and Great Danes are both dogs, but no dachshund owner would think his dog to be the equal of a Great Dane, or visa versa. However, neither would think of abusing the other because of the differences between their animals. For more on this subject, see G.B. Stern’s “The Ugly Dachshund.” There is a good lesson on racism in it.

    There’s nothing wrong with being different, it’s what you do about the difference that makes the difference. All men are not, as Jefferson put it, equal. Those of us who have had the good fortune to be able to think open mindedly about the subject know, without exception, we are created unequal and uniquely different from one another, but, of course, we don’t dare admit it and instead remain cynically silent.

  10. RCF Said:

    I hate the language rap singers use. I see no need for it, and am glad that for the most part, I cannot understand them, though I listen to that kind of music very seldom. That is personal. I guess people get some sort of thrill from hearing the words they shout, though I am not clear on that.

    It seems to me that the university should not have to make rules against every possible violation of moral principle. The students should know better than to do what they did. If the only reason they would not do it is because it is against the rules, woe betide our society! I know laws are misused, and lack of law is also misused. However in this case, freedom of speech is not the issue. I am sure the university has in its handbook of regulations some statement of the kinds of actions that can lead to expulsion. And that the actions of those students fell into a category explicitly, or at least generally, alluded to.

    As a teacher who came to be extremely wary of the question “is this policy?” I am very comfortable with decisions made on a case-by-case basis, judging actions by their affect on the “now.” Those students needed to be expelled, to know that what they did was unacceptable, that they could not be members of the community and act like that. Let them step aside for a while and think that through. It is not the end of their lives. Boy! I sound like a hard-nosed conservative! I am not – but at times I guess I see reason in tough actions.

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I have not owned more than one dog or cat at a time but I have the feeling that I would love both equally. I see neighbors walking a chiwawa with a Newfoundland. They can’t be treated the same as one would get a backache if his water and food bowl was on the floor while the other couldn’t eat if his bowl was placed some feet off the floor.

    In one family some kids are smart and others not so; some athletic and others musical; some beautiful and others homely. Should parents tolerate the smart ones making fun of the dumb ones; the athletic ones mocking the clumsy or musical or intellectual ones; the beautiful ones berating the ugly ones? Nasty words or words meant to hurt do, no matter who they are directed at, even if the difference is skin color.

    I know that this phrase has nothing to do with racism, but it came to mind: Vive la différence!

  12. Lucrezia Said:

    It’s good to learn that Rabbi invites those who are in radical disagreement with him, and with this in mind, freedoms may be safe — on his program. On matters of anti-Semitism and racism, we are on the same page, but like the ACLU, I see the wisdom in defending freedom of expression, no matter how godawful the stink.

    If nature had been permitted to take its course, chances are these students would have been shunned by many if not most of their peers, not to speak of potential employers who would not care to invite rabble into their midst. The consequences stand to have been much greater than being merely kicked out of school.

  13. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The students’ punishment may resonate with others at this and other schools. Awareness will help some to become aware of how their words hurt and how following others without thinking can be detrimental to the health of their academic lives and their careers. The essential step is to address the hateful feelings behind the words and that is harder to do.

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