Defending Knowles right to speak smacks of cowardice

By Beth Kwiatek

The UB President, Satish K. Tripathi and the Editorial Board of the Buffalo News were wrong to defend the presence of Michael Knowles, the “intellectually bankrupt bombast” who speaks “noxious content” and “hateful and dehumanizing rhetoric” — their words, not mine — under the auspices of Free Speech. 

They defended his right to a public platform via the apologia of the First Amendment to maintain democracy and to reject censorship. But both those lines of defense are weak.

Michael Knowles has been given multiple stages to speak.  A public university should not be one of them. Because provocateurs, like Knowles, are not interested in discussion or debate. They tell lies as truths.  They present opinion as fact. Knowles asserts that Trump’s election was stolen. He called the January 6th hearings “propaganda” and Greta Thunberg a “mentally ill Swedish child.”  Knowles and his ilk have a Weltanschauung without the world.

The goal of such provocateurs is not to present differing or opposing ideas, but rather to build support for their absolutist and oppressive ideology. Their goal, a call to action. They know it.  We know it. 

To defend Knowles’ right to speak based solely on the legal parameters of Free Speech, which really speaks to the Supreme Court’s inability and unwillingness to define “Hate Speech”, smacks of cowardice. 

 We are living in dangerous times. Buffalo personally knows all too well what happens when hate speech is given a megaphone. We cannot give ignorance and hate a platform. And, if we do, we cannot deny responsibility for the consequences of such speech.   Consequences that we know are inevitable. 

Democracies thrive when and only when individuals and institutions defend and protect the rights of all individuals: to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Such rights include the power of self-definition — including transgendered peoples’ rights. Democracies thrive when individuals and institutions are not afraid to confront racism, sexism, heteronormative and conformist ideology. We cannot be afraid to “call a spade a spade”. 

No space is a-political or a-contextual.  History has taught has that neutrality does not exist. Zero is only a number. The President of UB and the Editors of the Buffalo News cannot hide behind the reductionist understanding and implementation of Free Speech. By doing so, they void their political standpoint of valuing “diversity, equity, inclusion and respect” and of “being a good citizen” to the Buffalo community.  You cannot argue that you create a safe space and then invite a man like Knowles to speak.  Owning a value without a lived practice is meaningless. 

Both UB and the News need to do better. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that everything the Nazi’s did was legal.  We must make decisions that are morally and ethically right. Such as The University of St. Thomas. Their reason Knowles was never scheduled: he is disrespectful and lacks credibility. Well done, St. Thomas.

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