UMass teaches lesson on free speech; other campuses should heed it

Free speech can be uncomfortable, but that’s the price we pay

Derrick Gordon is the first openly gay player in Division I men's basketball. The Westboro Baptist Chuch plans to hold a protest at the school this week. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)


Derrick Gordon is the first openly gay player in Division I men's basketball. The Westboro Baptist Chuch plans to hold a protest at the school this week. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Free speech can be ugly, but that doesn’t mean it should be silenced — and at the University of Massachusetts, a spokesman said it won’t be.

When UMass Amherst basketball player Derrick Gordon announced he is gay, he made national headlines as the first NCAA Division 1 basketball player to come out. His announcement also triggered a threat from the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas to travel to UMass to protest the school’s support for him.


This “church” has followers who are obsessed with homosexuality, which they believe is sinful. Its acolytes travel around the country, often to picket the funerals of dead American soldiers, to protest what they say are the evil values that led to their deaths.

A UMass spokesman said the protest will be tolerated if it occurs. As Harvey Silverglate, a leading First Amendment lawyer explains it, that’s because the Supreme Court has ruled that authorities cannot stop such a protest, held on public property, as long as it is not disruptive, “no matter how bizarre or hateful” the protest may be.

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As a public university, UMass is limited in which activities it can ban from its campus. Contrast that to what happened recently at Northeastern University — a private institution that, Silverglate says, has more leeway to silence speech it doesn’t like.

At Northeastern, a pro-Palestinian-rights student group was suspended after members slipped 600 “mock eviction” notices under dorm doors to draw attention to what the group calls Israel’s “apartheid policies against the Palestinian people.” The university said the suspension was over broken rules, not controversial speech, but the student group saw it as an effort to silence unpopular views.

Brandeis University — also private — can silence speech, too. The school rescinded its decision to award an honorary degree it had offered to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a defender of women’s rights in the Islamic world.


The bottom line: Freedom comes with a price, whether it’s the telling of uncomfortable truths or the airing of unpopular or hateful views. It’s a price some in academia would rather not pay.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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