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An Opportunity Missed

By John Yewell

Protesters are expected to greet Vice President Dick Cheney when he speaks today at Brigham Young University's commencement ceremony, and there has been no end of gloating on the left. Imagine: rejected by students at the reddest university in the country (although the school color is blue) in one of the few states where his approval rating still exceeds 50 percent.

But in failing to come to the defense of Cheney's right to speak once the invitation was extended, his critics wandered out onto the shaky limb of intolerance, missing an opportunity to shine a light on one of the most repressive places in the country when it comes to free expression.

In Utah, the defenders of free speech struggle constantly against implacable foes, most often led by the same Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints authorities who invited Cheney, and who rigorously enforce religious orthodoxy at the expense of intellectual freedom.

The LDS church, as it is known in Utah, is not monolithic -- witness Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, himself a Mormon. But its progressive members will not, in the long run, be served by the failure of their natural allies to defend free speech in this case. This failure has been a mistake for reasons both of intellectual honesty and political expediency.

First and foremost, the First Amendment argument is bulletproof. The left complained mightily in October 2004 when a right-wing uprising tried to derail an appearance by Michael Moore at Utah Valley State College, just miles down the road from BYU.

To appease the donors who threatened to withhold hundreds of thousands of dollars from the school, a visit by Sean Hannity was arranged for the week before. The compromise was inelegant, but had the benefit of satisfying the ACLU argument in such cases: that the cure for objectionable speech is more speech, not less.

Second, this was a political freebie. Cheney's opponents could have bought cheap a measure of credibility by supporting their most reviled opponent's right to speak. Such opportunities don't come along often, and it is to liberals' discredit that they failed to seize the moment, appearing instead to support an attack on free speech.

Cheney's speech was an ideal moment to remind the university -- and the church that owns it -- of the value of free speech. Utah generally, and BYU in particular, have lousy reputations when it comes to academic freedom. Professors have been fired simply for expressing ideas at odds with church teaching.

In the early 1990s there was an active feminist movement at BYU -- until June 1993, when English professor Cecilia Konchar Farr was fired after giving a speech supporting abortion rights. About the same time, anthropology professor David Knowlton met the same fate for questioning the church's missionary program in Latin America. Students demonstrated in support of the two fired professors -- one sign reading "Stop Academic Terrorism" -- to no avail.

In 1996, BYU English professor Gail Turley Houston was fired for contradicting church doctrine when she suggested, among other things, that prayers be offered to "Mother in Heaven" as well as "Father in Heaven."

In December 2004, Southern Utah University political science professor Stephen Roberds was fired after using the f-word in class. Roberds, who was voted "Teacher of the Year" for 2003-2004 by students, blamed his firing on a climate of intellectual fear.

In 2005, Erin Jensen, an English teacher at South Sevier High School, was terminated after rumors circulated that she a "witch" and a "coffee drinker." She admitted to the coffee drinking.

In June 2006, BYU philosophy professor Jeffrey Nielsen was fired for publishing these and other words in an op/ed piece in the Salt Lake Tribune: "I believe opposing gay marriage and seeking a constitutional amendment against it is immoral."

I am no friend of the vice president -- he would never be invited to speak at John Yewell University. And taking the side of the university and the church that have done their best to stifle free speech is hard to swallow. But I can't think of a better way of making a point than by making common cause over principle with one's worst enemies.

Write John Yewell at jyewell@mac.com.

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