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Eric Cantor protests at Rice University an affront to open discourse and free speech

By Anthony Lauriello     11/16/11 6:00pm

As my high school teachers know, I have a soft spot for being disruptive. I firmly believe that causing the occasional ruckus serves a purpose of not only creative expression but the simple joy of expression. However, I found the behavior of protesters who last week disrupted Eric Cantor, Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, in the midst of his speech utterly reprehensible.

As soon as the very conservative Virginia congressmen took the stage at the Baker Institute, a group of individuals who looked as if they had just driven their Suburus from the Birkenstock convention to get a snack at Whole Foods began yelling and chanting that Cantor was not welcome at our university and began listing a predictable and wide ranging laundry list of complaints from gay rights to his lack of support of the 99 percent. Baker officials and RUPD immediately began to escort them out and Representative John Culberson, in the audience, began to yell at them calling them disgraceful. However it was President David Leebron who won the moment. Stepping in front of Cantor, whose smile betrayed no sign of annoyance, Leebron told those yelling that in their attempt to stymie free discourse they embarrassed the university and would be taken out. Those few of you who read my work from time to time know that I often have harsh words for the administration and Leebron has made his way in many a tasteful and perhaps not as tasteful Backpage during my tenure as editor. That being said, I have never been more proud to be part of this university and of my president when Leebron took the stage.

His heartfelt anger at the provocateurs showed his dedication to the principles of higher education and academic discourse. Especially considering that after reading several of the former Colombia Law School Head's opinions throughout the years, I am fairly certain many of his opinions lie far to the left of Rep. Cantor's. In fact, many of those who disagree with from time to time, including the Rice Young Democrats and SA President Georgia Lagoudas continued the admirable behavior expressing their support for the congressman taking the time to come talk to us despite their disagreements with his views. What could have potentially become an embarrassing moment for Rice was in fact quite the opposite.

Some will claim that the protesters' outburst fell within their First Amendment rights. In fact, . Cantor's only remark regarding the disruption was a laugh followed by the statement "only in America" with a shrug. In many of my columns I have argued the importance of exercising this very right and articulating one's opinions to further the cause of American democracy. However, attempting to shout out during another's talk with your opinions is not expressing your opinion but trying to stop someone else's. While I am not suggesting that we should lock up these protesters, these individuals most certainly believe they have something in common with historic protests such as those during the Civil Rights era where people courageously spoke out against authority despite the potential consequences. Instead, the protesters have more in common with the repressive regimes that their idols fought against.

Democracy requires the ability to express one's ideas, even if you don't agree with them. As famous Supreme Court Justice Brandeis once wrote when discussing hateful speech, "The remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence." Those who disagreed with Cantor had many options for "more speech" from this very opinion page to perhaps demonstrating after the speech outside of the Baker Institute and expressing their views as a counterpoint instead of trying to childishly shut-up one of the most powerful men in America.

When all is said and done, the only people the protesters hurt were themselves. The university saved face through the excellent behavior of those who came to the speech to learn and discuss, those in the audience only lost a few minutes of his time, and as an elected official Cantor has faced far more odious cases of disrespect. As a self-avowed moderate, I surely do not agree with everything that the congressman says but I found his speech interesting and the questions and answers fascinating. I believe that those protesters are truly poorer for missing such an opportunity. In fact, many of the specific complaints they had were brought up respectfully during Q&A and I found his answer about his votes on sexual prefrence in the workplace unexpected when he indirectly compared the discrimination based off sexual preference to that of his Jewish family in Europe by saying that his own success was based off America's tolerance and no group should be discriminated against. I wholeheartedly concur, but I would also add that no group or person should be silenced. If only the protesters last Thursday agreed.

Anthony Lauriello is a Wiess College junior and Thresher Backpage editor.

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