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Martin Dyckman: Memory of FSU professor’s enduring lesson on free speech, tolerance

An enduring lesson on what freedom of speech should mean to a college campus was taught more than a half-century ago by one of my favorite professors at Florida State University, Lewis M. Killian.

I hadn’t taken his class or even met him at the time but something I had written was a hot discussion topic that day.

It was a letter in the student newspaper, the Florida Flambeau, mocking the Kappa Alpha fraternity for wearing Confederate uniforms and waving the Rebel flag during homecoming festivities. As I recall, there was a reference to the hind end of General Lee’s horse. I was a freshman, and the hyperbole was sophomoric.

It was a fortuitous time to have taken ill and be in the campus infirmary. Some young men, I was told, were looking for me.

“He didn’t have a right to write that,’ exclaimed a student in one of Killian’s sociology classes.

The professor exploded.

“You can disagree with it all you like,” he said, “but don’t ever say in MY class that someone doesn’t have a right to write something.”

This is the place to mention that Lew Killian had grown up in Macon, Georgia, with an accent thick as clabber. In his memoir, he called himself a Cracker.

And he was the faculty adviser to the Kappa Alpha chapter at FSU.

Outgrowing his background, he had become emblematic of the conscience of a new South.

Knowing both worlds, he taught his most popular class, race relations, with strict objectivity and sensitivity to the irascible emotions of the time. Because of his support for students engaged in the lunch counter sit-ins of December 1960 the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce wanted him fired. So did the more racist members of the Board of Control, which had the power to do it. Nothing doing, said FSU President Robert M. Strozier, whose fatal heart attack in 1961 was widely blamed on the segregationist harassment he had withstood.

There were segregationists among faculty and students too. What people like Killian and Dyckman said about race was as unwelcome to them as “The Bell Curve” author Charles Murray‘s views are to the students—and, perhaps non-students—who rioted against him at Middlebury College recently.

But at least the segs let us speak and write. The Middlebury rioters owe an apology not just to Murray, but to the conservative students who wanted to hear him speak. They owe one also to the students and faculty who wanted to debate Murray responsibly and rationally.

They also owe some time in jail, in my opinion.

Nothing is more dangerous to a democracy than the suppression of speech. It’s how Hitler‘s brownshirt thugs paved the way for his dictatorship. It’s inexcusable whether it comes from the right or the left.

Nothing could be more opposite the primary purpose to which colleges and universities should be dedicated.

That is to teach critical thinking skills to the people who soon enough will be in charge of our economy, our government and our future, whether as business leaders, teachers, politicians or simply voters. Critical thinking is essential not only to all academic disciplines; it is vital to everything.

But you can’t inspire critical thinking in people who are willing to hear only what they want to hear. You can’t teach it to people who would try to get a professor fired rather than personally challenge him or her to rationalize a provocative expression. You can’t teach it to people who demand a “trigger warning” lest they hear something that might offend their fragile sensibilities.

Having spent a little time around Middlebury while my wife was studying for three summers there, I was astonished that something like the Charles Murray riot could happen on that campus.

But it isn’t so surprising in the light of some disturbing data reported in a Washington Post column the following week.

Since 1970, an enterprise called the General Social Survey has been polling public attitudes toward allowing such controversial people as racists, atheists, and communists to speak in their communities. One question, almost presciently describing the case against Murray, gave the example of “a person who believes that Blacks are genetically inferior.”

In 1976, about 84 percent of respondents 18 to 25 with some college education said yes, that person should be allowed to speak. Older and non-college people were somewhat less willing.

But by 2014, support among all groups had dropped to 50 percent, with college-educated youths posting by far the largest decline. They were also less willing than before to hear a communist speak.

It may seem strange to be talking about their intolerance when it is intolerance itself that the young people think they are defending against.

But no person has the right to decide for others what “truth” they will hear. The remark attributed to Voltaire applies: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Near the end of a long life in which he had often been vilified, Thomas Jefferson wrote this: “We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

It’s by those lights that Lew Killian lived and taught. Bless his memory.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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