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Kevin Cullen

Free speech has a price — letting jerks have their say

Back in the late 1990s, after a court ruled that a speech code for students at the University of Wisconsin was unconstitutional, a group of college professors there enlisted the well-known Boston civil libertarian Harvey Silverglate to advise them on how to get a similar code for professors rescinded.

During a debate at the Madison campus, the person who made the most impassioned plea against having a formal code prohibiting offensive speech was not a professor, but a student.

“I’ll never forget that moment,” Harvey Silverglate was saying. “He got up and said, ‘I’m gay. I don’t like being called a faggot. But when someone calls me that, I know something about them. I know not to turn my back on them. Free speech is important to my safety.”

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The hall went silent.

“Nobody said anything after that kid spoke,” Silverglate recalled. “He put it in terms that everyone could understand. Speech is not a window decoration. It is really useful.”

I bring this story up at a time when we pause to appreciate the rights enshrined in and protected by the Constitution, and in light of the recent contretemps in Western Massachusetts, where a venerable newspaper, The Berkshire Eagle, came under harsh criticism for printing a racially insensitive screed by a conservative activist whose name might as well be Jim Crow.

In his piece, guest columnist Steven Nikitas presumes to advise African-Americans how to better themselves. They are encouraged to “reform their culture from top to bottom by respecting marriage and the family and the law, returning to their churches, embracing education and hard work, avoiding violence and debased rap music, speaking clearly, shunning drugs and profanity and pulling up their pants.”

I like the last part. Pulling up their pants. Surely, that will help. And if only those dang white kids would get a haircut and stop listening to that infernal rock ’n’ roll.

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Nikitas’s piece goes on to pine for the good old days.

“Elderly African-Americans,” he wrote, “often talk wistfully about their youths in those ostensibly horrible years before ‘civil rights.’ ”

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest there are very few African-Americans who seriously believe things were better before the civil rights movement.

Nikitas’s piece is ostensibly a pitch for African-Americans to abandon the Democratic Party and vote Republican. But it reads like satire, like Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which suggested that the poor could better themselves and society by eating their own children.

It is not satire. Nikitas is dead serious and believes he has a prescription for all of the problems facing black people. Is the column offensive? It is to me, and to many people who complained that The Berkshire Eagle was wrong to turn over its space to someone who throws stereotypes around like horseshoes.

But then I think about that gay kid in Wisconsin, who wanted to know where people stood so he could know how far to stand away from them. If somebody harbors views you find offensive, it’s better to know than not to know.

The column, which gave voice to opinions that are more widespread than many of us would like to think, was a public service, a refutation of the nonsense that we are a postracial society because we’ve twice elected a black man to the nation’s highest office.

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But just as unsettling as some of the rhetoric in that column is the instinct to silence it.

Silverglate wasn’t surprised that so many people would want to censor somebody like Steven Nikitas. He sees a pattern.

“The trend toward censorship generally, and specifically the movement which tries to squelch speech that is liable to disturb somebody by injuring their dignity, began on college campuses in the 1980s and has begun to spread well beyond that,” Silverglate said.

“It always bugged me that you could say things in Harvard Square that you’d be punished for saying in Harvard Yard. But now we’re getting to the point that you can’t say it in Harvard Square anymore.”

If some regard Silverglate as one of the few remaining free-speech absolutists, he does draw lines.

The people who poured red paint on the Christopher Columbus statue on the North End waterfront last week?

“That’s vandalism,” he said. “Vandalism is a crime.”

The people from Black Lives Matter who showed up outside Mayor Marty Walsh’s Savin Hill home to chant slogans at 4 in the morning the other day?

“The content of the demonstration is protected. It was political speech,” Silverglate said. “But the courts have always recognized certain limitations on such speech: time, place and manner. As for the time, it was 4 in the morning. As for place, it was outside a private residence. As for manner, they were shouting loud enough to wake people up at a time when most people are sleeping.

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“So in that particular demonstration, there was a violation at all three levels.”

Not only that, Walsh wasn’t home. He was in Colorado. And he was none too pleased when he got home and found out that some of his neighbors had to endure a predawn protest aimed at him.

The protest was ostensibly against the mayor’s support for the 2024 Olympics being staged in Boston. And while the message behind the protest was perfectly legitimate, the demonstrators ruined the delivery of that message by acting like jerks.

“The great thing about living in a free country,” Harvey Silverglate observed, “is that you have the right to be a jerk.”


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.