The First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of speech. Not conservative or liberal, but all protected speech, in a content-neutral manner.
And that’s why the Nebraska Republican Party’s demand that Creighton University rescind its invitation for Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator, to deliver its commencement address irks us so badly.
To be sure, many college campuses struggle with adequate representation for conservative voices. One need only see protests against certain speakers whose viewpoints may be unpopular to see the threat in external pressure silencing speech. We agree that all voices must be heard on campuses, the very place where our future leaders confront uncomfortable ideas and form their viewpoints.
Yet, the state’s largest political party is attempting to use its clout to prevent a former Democratic leader from speaking on a college campus, one his son attended. Ryan Hamilton, executive director of the state GOP, criticized the Jesuit institution for inviting a speaker who voted in favor of abortion rights during his two terms in the U.S. Senate.
Those assessments of Kerrey’s voting record and Catholic doctrine aren’t inaccurate, but Kerrey cast his last Senate vote 19 years ago. Would a speaker who favored the death penalty face the same criticism, given Pope Francis’s declaration that capital punishment is never acceptable?
Regardless of whether one agrees with Kerrey’s politics, he's an accomplished statesman and Medal of Honor winner – who, coincidentally, addressed the December graduates at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln without similar opposition.
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Remember that very campus endured its own political firestorm regarding free speech in 2017.
A conservative student claimed UNL quashed her political recruitment activities. Republicans criticized the university for its handling of the situation, accused it of being openly hostile to conservatives and demanded action, including the firing of staff members. In the end, they received some of what they asked for, including some revision of NU’s free-speech policies.
Though the specific circumstances between UNL and Creighton, a private university, indeed differ, these instances represent different sides of the same coin. They also underscore why free-speech standards must be applied fairly and dispassionately to political expression of all stripes.
America is best served by a vibrant marketplace of ideas, not one that artificially, arbitrarily skews to the left or right. In no place is that more true on college campuses, which were founded to educate students and challenge their most deeply held beliefs. Students should be exposed to conservative and liberal voices alike to allow them to broaden and shape their world views.
Silencing a speaker on partisan grounds, as the Nebraska Republican Party aims to do here, is antithetical to the laudable ideal of free speech enshrined in the Constitution.