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The truth about 'free speech'


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In October 1942, Helmut Hbener was beheaded in Berlin's Pltzensee prison for the crime of distributing self-printed, anti-Hitler leaflets in his neighborhood in Hamburg. He was 17 years old.

In February 1943, Sophie Scholl was beheaded in Munich's Stadelheim prison, along with her brother, Hans, and their friend, Christoph Probst. Her crime was distributing anti-Nazi leaflets on a university campus. She was 21 years old.

Literally losing your head for expressing your opinion in political leaflets is a pretty clear violation of the freedom of speech we Americans consider to be a fundamental right.

Now, in this very year at Colorado College, some students have gained national attention for distributing leaflets that some members of the community have found offensive. In fact, our college president publicly denounced the leaflets, which a few undergraduate males created and distributed to satirize a publication of the Feminist and Gender Studies program at CC.

A student conduct hearing was held. Some members of the aforementioned program expressed concern and the need for more discussion around issues such as the conflation of sex and violence. The authors of the fliers were asked to speak in a forum. Clearly some members of the community felt the fliers violated standards of respect and tolerance. Others stepped forward to defend the fliers and the right to post them.

No one was arrested. No one lost his or her head (at least not literally). No one was even expelled or suspended. All of which is funny, because the uproar around this leafleting, and the outrage around the issue of "free speech" that has ensued, might almost lead one to believe we have a case of a 21st-century Sophie Scholl or Helmut Hbener right here in the U.S.A., right here in Colorado Springs!

Oh, except for the punishment part and, of course, the free speech part.

We can quibble about the meaning of "punishment" or about terms like the "abrogation" of free speech, if we want. Whatever our views, I think we can agree that being guillotined for a leaflet has "punishment" written all over it. But I'm sorry, "a feminist expressed concern at me" and "the president told me I was bad" those just don't have the same impact. I was given worse punishment myself for mouthing off to my Scout Master when I was 13.

I spent last month teaching for a study-abroad program in Germany, and nearly every day I passed the "Brother and Sister Scholl School." Sixty years from now, no one will be naming schools after our CC leaflet martyrs.

And why not? Well, largely because they are not martyrs. They are alive and well, walking the campus, free to say or post whatever they please.

Yes, sometimes other people don't like what you say, or they get offended or angry. They may even use their pulpits and lecterns to denounce you publicly. But having someone disagree with you, or tell you to shut up, or tell you that what you said was wrong even if that someone is a person of authority in your community does not constitute a violation of free speech. Being arrested, or tortured, or having your head severed from your body does.

What I find most irksome in all of this, finally, is the attitude of entitlement that suggests that "you have no right to denounce my offensive vulgarity because it's, like, free speech, dude."

What I find pathetic is that a crude and sophomoric joke that is not even particularly witty has the words "free speech" associated with it at all. It's an insult to young people like Sophie Scholl and Helmut Hbener, the very age of our very own students, who paid for their speech with their lives.

To Helmut and Sophie, I offer a moment of silent reflection. To my students and to those in the broader community who are outraged at the supposed threat to freedom of speech raging on CC's campus, I say:

Read a book. Have a thought. Write it down. Pass it around. Challenge the world with your ideas. When they come for your head, I hope I have the guts to stand by you.

Until then, grow up, get over it, get on with it.

William S. Davis is an associate professor of comparative literature and German at Colorado College. He may be reached at


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