Learning to respond to offensive -- even hateful -- speech should be part of the college experience.
The first column I ever wrote for my college newspaper was to protest a speaker who'd been invited to present "the other side" about the war in Bosnia, which in the '90s was as terrible a mess as Syria is now. He was a defender of then-Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who was later indicted for genocide and war crimes in the Balkan war.
I was horrified that the university was giving a platform to propaganda being used to carry out ethnic cleansing. My column said as much, and I got my first lesson in public pushback from the fraternity hosting the speaker. I decided to attend the lecture; my disgust was justified when the speaker said the Breadline Massacre, which had killed scores of innocent civilians in a market, had been staged to create worldwide sympathy for the victims.
It didn't occur to me to boycott or stage a protest since I've long believed in the disinfecting power of sunshine coupled with the power of the pen.
A recent response by students at St. Louis University demonstrated another effective approach.
Months ago, SLU's College Republicans invited Allen West, a former congressman, retired lieutenant colonel and provocateur, to speak on foreign policy. As part of the process of bringing a speaker to campus, the group submitted flyers to advertise the event. When those flyers indicated a talk about "radical Islam," university officials asked them to stick to the proposal they had originally pitched and gotten approved.
West threw an online fit soon after in response. His post on his personal website said that he was being censored. He slandered the Muslim Student Association (MSA) as a "stealth jihad radical Islamic campus organization" connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Members of the MSA at SLU met with university officials and the College Republicans to explain how his baseless lies smeared them and added fuel to a tense political climate. They pointed out the connection between the vilification of a group and rising acts of violence against that group.
University President Fred Pestello released a statement saying he condemned the claims made against students, and that he stood in solidarity with the MSA and all SLU students. But, he added, it was important to "expose all ideas and positions, provocative or pedestrian, to critical inquiry."
It's through civil engagement that truth emerges, he argued.
Now, every institution has its sacrosanct issues off the table for public discussion. For example, SLU did not extend the same freedom of discourse last year to a former law professor who had been invited by SLU law students to talk about reproductive issues, including abortion. That event was moved off campus because it reportedly conflicted with the university's values.
And suppose an invited speaker had maligned the Catholic Students Association as being involved with the clergy sex abuse scandal. Would the university have still given him a platform to promote such ideas?
It seems unlikely.
In this case, the decision worked out to the MSA's benefit. The Muslim students reached out to the rest of the SLU community. They asked them to wear white shirts, fill the rows in the auditorium and silently walk out before West's speech began.
Hundreds of their peers responded.
West was not silenced. No one tried to shout down his hateful attacks. They simply walked away from his bigotry.
Maariya Ahmed, a senior at SLU and co-president of the MSA, said she had been nervous before the event. The students' reaction moved her.
"Seeing how the university, the community of SLU stood behind us, it was so beautiful. It really restored my faith," she said. Co-president Azfar Shaik said the turnout was humbling, but that he wasn't too surprised by the overwhelming show of support.
"This was an attack against SLU and the ideals it holds," he said.
The university president followed up with a message that said he "beamed with pride for how our students integrated the Jesuit ideal of 'cura personalis' into lived experience through a showing of courage, strength and solidarity."
"Last night, we were truly one SLU," he wrote.
The students exercised their own freedom: To protest peacefully and powerfully.
To stand with those who had been unfairly targeted in their community. To make a statement without saying a word.