“I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” — Voltaire, Feb. 6, 1770.
The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse provided our community with a lesson in balance, perspective, responsibility and leadership last week. In short, it was a teachable moment from an institution of higher education.
Thank goodness such education hasn’t yet been legislated out of existence.
The lesson involved free speech — both the rights and the responsibilities.
Free speech allows someone to burn the American flag in protest, for example. You may not like it, but it’s protected by the U.S. Constitution, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.
One person’s free speech is another’s outrage.
That lesson came to campus when a contractor working on a project at UW-L drove a truck bearing the image of a Confederate flag.
Without question, the truck driver absolutely has the legal right to display that symbol as he chooses. But with that right comes responsibility — in this case, taking responsibility for displaying a symbol that is considered racist and, to some, hurtful.
As we understand the sequence of events that unfolded, the university balanced free speech with responsible leadership by informing the contractor that the confederate flag was considered an offensive symbol to at least some on campus.
And the contractor took the responsible step of removing the symbol from his truck while on campus.
The contractor and his flag weren’t banned from campus. That would have been wrong.
At the same time, campus administration would have been just as wrong to ignore the complaints about the confederate flag.
It all came down to respect — the respect it took to ask someone to stop displaying a symbol of racism and divisiveness, and the respect shown by responding to those concerns and taking down the symbol.
Spare us your concern about political correctness and weak-minded youth who are too easily offended. The students who complained were doing exactly what we should expect from students on a college campus — raising hell about a symbol of slavery, which was outlawed a century and a half ago.
Freedom of speech doesn’t come without cost. It also doesn’t come without responsibility for your actions.
In this age of divisiveness in politics and on other levels, this case serves as an excellent reminder that respect and responsibility continue to matter.
When we talk to each other with respect, it’s amazing how we can agree on solutions.
Every now and then, it’s nice to have a reminder.
It’s especially affirming when a university can continue to provide us all with a teachable moment.