Where are today’s defenders of our free speech?

Where are today’s defenders of our free speech?

Defenders and naysayers of Israel’s right to exist are marching. New York’s streets are teeming with 1960s-style protests that stop and snarl traffic. Jews and Gentiles are on either and both sides of the public quarrel over U.S. support for Israel.

Mostly silent though have been the usual loudmouths of free speech — the NAACP, ACLU and National Urban League (NUL) brigade. I asked about this loud silence on the part of our civil rights figures at a recent meeting where the speaker was Marc Morial, president of the NUL: Why, in the midst of hateful attacks on Jews, and clashes between Jews and Gentiles on the streets and campuses of New York, there has been dead-silence from the NAACP and National Urban League and the ACLU?

Morial scoffed, then punted my question. After saying he read virtually every major newspaper daily and therefore knew what’s been happening in Israel and Gaza, and on our streets, Morial had no clear explanation for these groups’ croaked voices or the hoopla of protests in our city. No explanation did he offer for the invisibility and silence of his or the other civil rights groups. All Morial had in his vocal arsenal were cliches, as if he were parodying Rodney King’s tired homage to racial strife: Why can’t we all just get along?

Morial’s quiet-side emerged on the very day that Jews and their allies marched in Washington in a national demonstration to rally Americans to a renewed crusade against antisemitism. That was hardly a rainbow coalition of marchers, but their message still made national news. Amazingly, in D.C., there were no arrests.

NYC is not D.C. Here, arrests face wild-eyed supporters of Palestinians in Gaza who broke from their peaceful brethren to shatter windows and invade Grand Central Terminal. There were plenty of police on hand here but where were the civil rights leaders? And where were our public officials when we needed them to serve as parade marshals?

Gone are our electeds and the big voiced civil rights leaders to take sides against any and all barbarisms and vulgarities. No one is neutral on the moral issues of our times, so why their absence and silence?

On the campus, there is the opposite of silence going on. Only the youths are bellyaching, the students, and a vanguard of the professoriate on college campuses. They have supplanted the lead from the well-funded, too comfortable civil rights and quiescent civil liberties groups of yore. Who figured the campuses would again take over the civil rights campaigns from the established order?

The campus youths and their professorial allies have displaced the groups that we thought were free-speech and assembly defenders. The issues are thorny but not less ornery and tenacious as previous decades when civil righters made history.

Now, our civil rights groups have gone deaf and dumb to the backlash coming from the heads of elite colleges and universities, at Columbia, and Harvard and Hunter College, too, where the leaders are kowtowing to pressures from funders who promise to cut their funding if the colleges don’t draw a line and curtail student demonstrations not to their (the funders’) liking. And caving to pressure to clamp down on outsiders coming to campus from pols like Mitt Romney who was never a free-speech militant.

Already forgotten are the lessons of civil rights struggles: when civil righters took rights campaigns to the South, and the North to racially-torn urban cities there was no quieting of the natives allowed. There was no one more civil and silver-tongued than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but, he, too, was lambasted as “an outsider” and “troublemaker.”

The resurrection of speech codes and banishment of “outside agitators” used against King, Dick Gregory and Stokely Carmichael won’t silence this generation. They no longer wait on the civil rights groups to lead them or to speak for them. Much less to silence them.

So, although we counted on the big voices of the likes of Morial, today’s youths follow the example of the greatest, now deceased liberties champions, such as Nat Hentoff, the journalist and lover of free speech and assembly, who quoted a student fighting for free speech, William Jergins:

“A true education demands that students be able to hear ideas different from their own. That is why respecting free speech on campus is so important and why we are standing up to get rid of speech codes that limit the ideas we hear, the thoughts we consider.”

Where are today’s Nat Hentoffs? Not here.

Meyers is president of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and a former assistant national director of the NAACP, and past vice president of the ACLU.

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