Free exchange of ideas remains vital

Freedom New Mexico

Freedom of speech and academic freedom prevailed last week when a deeply religious man — some call him a zealot — delivered a speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy after an intensive campaign to censor him by government force.

Retired Marine Lt. Clebe McClary spoke at an Air Force Academy prayer luncheon Thursday, a day after U.S. district Judge Christine Arguello dismissed a lawsuit that asked the government to intervene and stop the talk. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation filed the suit, along with Associate Professor of Economics David Mullin and several other unnamed faculty members.

The plaintiffs complained that McClary, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, would use the speech to push Christian faith on Academy employees and cadets who feared retribution if they did not attend. The private event was sponsored by academy chaplains, not commanders. Academy brass went out of their way to convey that attendance was optional because of the event’s religious nature.

Plaintiffs balked, arguing that retribution for nonattendees was imminent and real. If that’s true, a majority of cadets and faculty had better watch out. Retirees comprised half the audience. Most faculty members did not attend.

In her ruling Wednesday, Judge Arguello characterized claims of retaliation as “speculative and hypothetical.” Mullin testified he hadn’t suffered retribution for skipping previous prayer luncheons.

An attorney for the plaintiffs argued that Arguello’s “speculative and hypothetical” comment may prohibit anyone from seeking a court’s help if he or she fears retribution without having suffered it.

So let’s get this straight. Plaintiffs wanted a judge to censor the speech on a basis of potential content and theories about bad things that could happen to nonlisteners, even though federal law forbids any such retaliation. This was not an effort to censor on a basis of past behavioral patterns but on a basis of speculation, fear and hypothesis.

Thank God the judge ruled as she did. It is frightening to envision a government that would exercise prior restraint based only on what some believe could happen to those who don’t attend a speech. To call this legal maneuver a stretch would be too polite.

As it turns out, McClary delivered an innocuous speech about the freedom of overcoming adversity and the advantages of choosing a great spouse — just as his defenders had predicted. It was a motivational speech in which McClary expressed love for his faith. Other speakers talked about Allah, the Torah and Buddha.

The benign nature of McClary’s speech doesn’t matter. McClary had a right to show up and talk incessantly about Jesus and nothing else. We are loath to censor expression in this country, even if it is highly offensive and controversial. Even pornography gets protection. Our embrace of free expression is the reason Mullin, a government employee, will almost certainly keep his job — and should — after suing his employer.

The Academy commanders and chaplains should be applauded for standing their ground and defending free speech — as we would expect our military to do.

A college does not endorse a message by hosting the speaker. If that were the case, few could speak. By hosting — whether it’s Billy Graham or the radical leader of an Islamic Jihad — an academic institution facilitates learning and the free exchange of ideas. Interfere with that and we assault the First Amendment, which protects our country’s most sacred rights.