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April 29, 2017

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Freedom of expression is paramount to true liberty

"His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot. His freedom guarantees mine."

That was author J.K. Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, speaking last year at the prestigious PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists) America awards event in New York. She was referring to candidate Donald Trump.

President Trump has accepted an invitation for a formal state visit to Britain. A petition to ban Trump from Britain now has approximately one million signatures. At the PEN gala, she mentioned the petition, which at that point had garnered a half million signatures.

This drew cheers and laughter, but the sneering subsided when she added our freedom depends on tolerating those opinions we find most objectionable. "Unless we take that position without caveats or apologies," she stated, "we have set foot upon a road with only one destination." She argued supporting suppressing others would remove her moral right to defend feminism, transgender rights or universal suffrage.

The current popularity of shouting down speakers on campuses strengthens her case considerably. Some colleges and universities, where freedom of speech should be paramount, have become examples of exactly the opposite behavior.

Wider society is hardly immune to intimidation. Several decades ago, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, where I worked, attracted intense organized pressure to cancel an event featuring a Palestine Liberation Organization official. We did not do so. Council Chairman John D. Gray, head of Hart, Schaffner & Marx, and our board were supportive.

Efforts to suppress speakers came from some foreign government representatives, opponents of religious reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and others. We held firm against threats.

Winston Churchill demonstrated the principle dramatically and profoundly, when the stakes were highest. Churchill evolved over many years into a genius at collecting diverse eclectic information, and also people.

Among the latter was Frederick Lindemann, a brilliant but abrasive Oxford scholar. Despite his intellectual success, he remained rather isolated socially. No doubt anti-Semitism was one factor in 1930's Britain.

Lindemann's primary problem, however, was Lindemann, a relentless know-it-all and generally unpleasant. Churchill's granddaughter Celia Sandys politely described him as "anti-social." Even Churchill's endlessly patient, tolerant wife Clementine resisted having the Oxford don as a weekend houseguest, but Winston insisted on Lindemann. He clearly regarded his friend as not only interesting company, but possessed of special talent.

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