With Free Speech Zones and Safe Spaces for All…

Each year during graduation season we are treated to what amounts to the closing ceremony of the Olympics of virtue signaling on college campuses across the nation. The competitors -- students who have spent four years in training -- huddling in safe spaces to avoid speakers with whom they disagree, using the free speech zone to learn what they’re supposed to be offended by, and demanding ridiculous measures be adopted by university administrators to remedy every perceived ill in human history. The gold medalists in this farce are the “walk-outs” -- the students who draw as much attention to themselves as possible by walking out of the commencement ceremony in protest of the commencement speaker. This year is no different; ask Vice President Mike Pence.

Beyond the risk of causing most Americans to suffer repetitive stress injury from excessive eye rolling, this trend presents a real threat that must not be taken lightly. These students are being taught a perverse version of freedom. Namely that freedom is the right to never be made uncomfortable. Once these putative tyrants of “tolerance” graduate, they will inevitably be confronted with people and ideas very different from their own and they will react in the manner for which they were applauded in college -- they will seek to silence opposition. My firm, First Liberty Institute, deals with the repercussions on a daily basis.

Consider Ken Hauge, a retired minister, who was threatened with eviction from his senior living complex in Fredericksburg, Virginia for leading a Bible study in a private apartment. His home is no longer a safe space for the free exercise of religion. Rabbi David Ribiat, one of our orthodox Jewish clients in the Village of Airmont, New York, has spent years and over $40,000.00 trying (unsuccessfully) to obtain a permit from the local government to simply host fellow Jews in his home to worship.

Surely there could be no safer space in America than a military base? Not so for Oscar Rodriguez, a decorated Air Force retiree who was physically assaulted by uniformed airmen and removed from a retirement ceremony for attempting to give a patriotic flag folding speech that included the word “God.” Adding insult to injury, the Air Force has refused to even apologize for the incident and the officer responsible was promoted.

There was no free speech zone for Aaron and Melissa Klein, whose family business Sweetcakes by Melissa was penalized $135,000.00 for not speaking the state approved message on marriage. The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry essentially bankrupted a private business because they didn’t like the religious beliefs of the owners.

Thankfully, our Founding Fathers instilled in the Constitution the only free speech zone or safe space anyone ever needed: the United States of America. My trust in the principles of the Constitution is my confidence in our ultimate victory for these clients.

President Reagan famously noted, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

While we fight and win these court battles today, it’s frightening to think these students walking out of or protesting at commencement ceremonies are the decision makers of tomorrow. When we hand on to them the freedom we fought for will they even want it? Or have they been so conditioned to an Orwellian notion of freedom that continually restricts acceptable viewpoints, speech, and religious beliefs to the whims of cultural orthodoxy that they never consider the possibility that one day their own ideas may fall out of fashion and find themselves in a prison of their own making. The Hamanesque irony notwithstanding, we will all suffer for their constitutional shortsightedness.

So, when we see the news reports of the next episode of outrage theater, let us each resolve to do more than our usual sigh of lament for “these kids today.” Let us graciously teach by our example the true meaning of freedom handed on to us by our forefathers – none of us are free unless all of us are free. It is a lesson that must be continually learned in a civic classroom from which we never graduate.

Lathan Watts is Director of Legal Communications for First Liberty Institute, the nation’s largest nonprofit law firm and think tank exclusively dedicated to defending religious liberty for all Americans and Regional Fellow of National Review Institute.

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