A First Amendment Obligation:  To Listen

By Shlomo Maital    

    This is a follow-up to my previous blog, Are You Listening?

      New York Times opinion columnist Pamela Paul (former longtime editor of the New York Times book review) wrote on March 30 about “The Most Profound Loss on Campus Isn’t Free Speech. It’s Listening.”

    Free speech in the US is anchored in the he First Amendment.  Enacted in 1791, it “prevents the government from making laws that regulate an establishment of religion, or that prohibit the free exercise of religion, or abridge the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, or the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.”  It was one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.

    Initially the First Amendment was interpreted narrowly.  Today the Supreme Court interprets it broadly, permitting what is close to hate speech. 

     But there is a fundamental problem.  Free speech is of no value without free attentive LISTENING.

     Paul recounts an experience in college.  The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a brilliant jurist and arch-conservative, came to speak at Brown University, a liberal Ivy league school, in 1991.  She recalls: “We knew our enemy and we hated him” —  including the ‘bigoted’ Jesse Helms or pugnacious Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole. 

    And Scalia?  “He wiped the floor with us…  In answer to our indignant questions, he calmly cited rebutting cases.  We fulminated and he reasoned, and when we seethed he lobbed back with charm….I left humbled.”

     Recently, at Stanford Law School, students repeatedly interrupted a speaker, an appeals court judge, whose views they disliked.  A Stanford administrator asked, “Is it worth letting someone speak if some students consider that person’s views objectionable, even abhorrent?”

    The answer is yes.  We listen.  Paul asks, “What gets lost if we don’t let that person speak?”

    We need an amendment to the First Amendment.  You have the right to free speech.  And – this is a tough one – you have an obligation to listen to stuff you dislike.  Really listen.  Because if we don’t listen to others, what’s the point of free speech?  “Free” speech without attentive listeners is not speech at all, it is futility. 

    Paul cites one study showing that “only 21 per cent of marriages today are politically mixed (Democrat and Republican).”  Democrats are especially unlikely to have friends from across the political divide.

    I find it hard, bitter, angering and disgusting, but – from time to time, I do dial in to Fox News on cable TV, to hear what they are saying.  I wonder how many Fox News listeners (they are the most numerous of all cable news TV viewers, making Fox News incredibly profitable) dial in to CNN or MSNBC. 

     Free speech?  A key part of democracy.  Polite respectful and attentive listening?  Equallly important – and today, largely missing. 

      Are you listening?