Free speech
Institutions cannot bow to fear; they should value speech

Two New Mexicans have been the victims of a nasty kind of censorship lately, not by the government, but by cultural institutions that are more afraid of public controversy than they are devoted to the spirit of free speech upon which our culture depends.

One is poet and author Jimmy Santiago Baca, a prize-winning New Mexican with a large national and international audience. The other is historian and gadfly Richard Berthold, a former UNM Professor whose "five minutes of infamy," as he says, were remarks he made on 9/11.

Baca and Berthold have little in common other than drawing the same disgusting censorship that might plague unpopular public speakers when obnoxious hecklers in the audience drown them out.

This is not government censorship where you land in jail for speaking your mind. This is an informal censorship of nonconformity in which fear and prejudice combine to try to gag the speech of people who are unpopular or who don't "fit in."

This goes against the grain of America's most cherished ideals. "Those who won our independence believed . . .that freedom to think as you will and speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery . . .of political truth," said Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1927.

Brandeis believed that the "greatest menace to freedom is an inert people." The remedy to both complacency and falsehood, he said, was "more speech, not enforced silence. Only an emergency can justify repression."

There was no emergency involved when the University of Akron decided not to use Baca's moving autobiography "A Place to Stand" for what the Associated Press describes as "incoming freshmen to read and discuss at orientation."

The university was afraid of the negative publicity that Baca's book might bring, following a dust-up last fall over people "with criminal records" living in its dorms, the AP said.

This is what happens when fear represses speech - golden opportunities for learning and growth are lost. Baca's life is an inspiration to anyone who grew up in terrible circumstances. Using jail time to teach himself to read and write, Baca is the embodiment of what education means. How sad that University of Akron freshmen were denied the chance to listen to a man who was literally saved by learning, and speaking the truth.

As for Richard Berthold, a heckler in the form of a lone letter writer, shut him up again. He was scheduled to do what he does best, lecture on ancient history at the Museum of Natural History here. This more than five years after his improvident and publicly regretted remark made during 9/11, "Anyone who blows up the Pentagon gets my vote."

Not only was he sacked for this inanity as a tenured professor at UNM, he's hardly surfaced since. One letter threatening to boycott the museum if Berthold spoke has brought an entire cultural institution to its knees, and sadly, tarnished its reputation with anyone who values "more speech, not enforced silence."

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
February 9, 2007