Healy Discusses Free Speech at Constitution Day Talk

News Story: September 21, 2017
Seton Hall Law School's Thomas J. Healy and SHU Professor Gary Rose on Constitution Day 2017
Thomas J. Healy, J.D. and Professor Gary Rose

“Who’s Afraid of Free Speech?” was the provocative question posed by Thomas J. Healy, J.D., the featured guest speaker on September 20 at Sacred Heart University’s observance of Constitution Day 2017. The observance was in the form of a talk Healy gave in University Commons, sponsored by SHU’s Department of Government, Politics & Global Studies, in collaboration with the 3 + 3 Bachelor’s Program with Seton Hall University School of Law, SHU’s Pre-Law Club and the Human Journey Colloquia Series.

Healy is a highly distinguished Professor at Seton Hall University School of Law, the author of the book The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holds Changed His Mind — and Changed the History of Free Speech in America and winner of the 2014 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award and the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Book Award.

The event was moderated by Gary L. Rose, professor and chair of SHU’s Department of Government, Politics & Global Studies, who offered that it was Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia who mandated that Federal funds be provided to colleges and universities to discuss and honor the U.S. Constitution however they chose. Sacred Heart elected to pay tribute by bringing in a learned scholar or law practitioner as a guest lecturer each year. “Because of the recent occurrence of speakers being prevented from making controversial presentations at schools, I thought it would be appropriate to have Professor Healy speak on the topic of free speech,” Rose explained.

Healy began by outlining some of the forms of social restraints that have been employed lately by individuals and groups to restrain speech. These included pressures like protests, marches, social media campaigns, boycotting, heckling and demands for economic retaliation. In more extreme cases, this has also included violence, threats and destruction of property. Healy made it clear that there’s no place for the latter and that he favored peaceful opposition. However, he added, the 1st Amendment of the Constitution only protects against government censorship — it’s up to us to protect non-binding norms as related to free speech.

“There’s no more timely issue we can discuss,” he said, noting that universities have been embroiled over the past year in debates about the degree of free speech that should be allowed on campuses. These have become “heated” conversations due to factors he tagged like increased partisanship, President Donald Trump as a polarizing figure and recent protests turning violent on campuses (among these, the incident at UC Berkeley last winter, Charles Murray at Middlebury, Ann Coulter and Richard Spencer).

Healy called the violent incidents “unfortunate outliers” and specified that the actions were against both conservative and liberal speakers, though the Left has been increasingly viewed as intolerant and hypocritical, he said. “The social norm of free speech is not being respected, particularly on college campuses. Who’s afraid of free speech? Students? Or critics who think that push-back is a form of censorship?”

In answering his own question, Healy stated there are three key values to free speech: (1) it promotes a search for truth, (2) it promotes self-government and (3) it contributes to the autonomy of the individual. “These values are undermined when government or individuals take action to limit free speech,” Healy opined.

When forms of protest against supposed radicalism occur, they are themselves forms of radicalism, particularly violent protest, Healy suggested. So what’s an acceptable form of protest? He favors counter-speech, wherein you can infer that a speaker is misguided, untrustworthy, bigoted, discriminatory or not factual. In fact, Healy stated, linguistic expression is not only a legitimate part of our free speech, but indispensable and valid for contributing to rational discussion.

Healy noted that the “chilling” effect, wherein a certain kind of speech is discouraged by creating discomfort, is part of all counter-speech. “The goal of most arguments is to extinguish the opposing view. If successful enough, the opposing view is silenced,” Healy said. He cited such assertions as “the world is flat” and “slavery is God’s will” as claims that mostly disappeared because of public debate.

Healy offered that we can’t be idle when we have concerns but, again, violence is not acceptable. “It too closely resembles the force exerted by government. Instead, we should accept most peaceful forms of protest,” he said, with regard to the ability of the speaker to endure it. This is not to say it won’t cause the speaker distress, which Healy acknowledges. Heckling is ok, for example, if not interruptive. “These norms are not enforceable by law. We can’t look to the law. We as individuals must determine what’s acceptable,” Healy said.

Further, he advised students, “Campuses should offer the widest latitude to entertain ideas. Push yourself intellectually, listen to others and scrutinize your beliefs. The culture of free speech is ours to shape.”