Speak or Forever Hold Your Peace

Speak or Forever Hold Your Peace

The danger is too great not to comment on efforts to silence free expression on college campuses.

Eugen Schoenfeld

Eugen Schoenfeld was born November 8, 1925. He is the oldest son of a book store owner in a small town in Czechoslovakia and a holocaust survivor.

I am caught on the horns of a dilemma.

On the one hand, I am still influenced by my early upbringing in the shtetl, where I was emphatically taught not to rock the boat. Never take sides, especially when it is a heated issue.

On the other hand, I am in America, supposedly a country of free speech. I was a professor subscribing to the ideal of free inquiry and thought.

I know that if I keep quiet and if I cause no stir, I will be safe. But should the desire for safety supersede the challenge for doing what is right?

It seems that young people in the zealotry of a cause no longer wish to permit free questioning. Recently students have vehemently opposed universities’ right to present speakers with views that stand in diametric opposition to their perspectives.

Cartoon by Jeff Koterba, Omaha (Neb.) World Herald

I do not advocate that dangerous views should go unchallenged. I had to discard my ancient belief of not rocking the boat, even when my comments could bring down some people’s wrath on me.

I still feel the pain I suffered when, early in my residence, I dared to comment on certain occurrences (especially those associated with Sen. Joseph McCarthy) that bothered me, and those who opposed my perspectives always retorted, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back where you came from?”

But if we do not question conditions that seem to violate the spirit of freedom of thought and inquiry, don’t we violate and retard our love of freedom?

Lately our justice system is being challenged from the right and the left. There are those in the government who seek to argue that the justice system should acquiesce to the desires and the needs of the powerful. This is not a new phenomenon. And there are those who, in the name of justice, seemingly seek revenge and violate strongly held beliefs.

Earlier this year, television news broadcast scenes from the trial of Larry Nassar, the Michigan State University doctor who functioned as the team physician for USA Gymnastics, violated the trust placed in him, and acted contrary to the law and to medical ethics.

I became disturbed when the judge vented her personal feelings and transformed the court into the scene of an angry mob.

I have no doubt that the physician was guilty. But even a guilty person should be treated with some respect and without causing excessive pain — after all, this also falls under the Jewish belief of tzar ba’al chai — the law of not causing pain, physical or mental, to any living thing.

There is a difference between punishment as dictated by the law and the heaping of venom and pain on the guilty party. Just because the perpetrator of the crime lacked humanity, should the courts also act inhumanly?

The act of transforming the courts from a place of revenge to a place of justice began with the Torah instruction in Leviticus 9:15: “Do not pervert justice. You shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the might of the powerful. But in righteousness you shall judge thy neighbor. This idea is expressed by Tacitus, the Roman historian, who proposed that the courts should be careful to follow the idea of sine ira et studio — that judges should ensure they judge without hate and zealousness. Otherwise, we will reduce our courts to mob scenes reminiscent of those during the French Revolution that reduced France to mob rule.

I remember the Nazi courts, in which judges had to defer to ideology and not to justice. Should anyone demand that the courts and the judges in them reflect loyalties to anything but to the principle of justice?

The idea of justice is a frail idea, and it is up to us to guard it, lest we are ready to give up, for the sake of popularity, the idea of justice based on law.

I had to give up my fears instilled into me and speak up. I am no longer to be governed by the fear, lest my words open Satan’s mouth to harm me.

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