I’m sure plenty of people saw the irony in the New York Times report about the invitation of retired Lt. Gen William G. Boykin to speak at a West Point prayer breakfast, where “civil liberties advocates…called on the Military Academy to rescind the invitation.” Obviously, it is very odd for anyone concerned about civil liberties to call for a campus speaker to be dis-invited, and the idea of it troubles me deeply.
It’s true that Boykin himself has no respect for free speech, and has argued that Islam “should not be protected under the first amendment.” But I fiercely defend the First Amendment rights of everyone, including those who hate the First Amendment.
It’s also true that Boykin “has decided to withdraw speaking at West Point’s National Prayer Breakfast” and was not technically banned. Still, he withdrew under pressure, and plenty of people wanted him to be banned. I don’t. I think Boykin should be free to speak at every college in America, and every student should be free to criticize him.
Unfortunately, that’s not true at West Point. The New York Times story quoted “a fourth-year cadet at West Point, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals for breaking military discipline.” At any other college, a student who had to remain anonymous in order to make fairly bland observations about a campus speaker would be regarded as a victim of terrible censorship. Why should West Point be allowed to suppress freedom under the guise of patriotism?
It’s also strange that no one is questioning the bizarre idea of a public college organizing prayer breakfasts. West Point’s spokesperson declared that the breakfast “will be pluralistic with Christians, Jewish and Muslim cadets participating.” That does sound very pluralistic, unless you’re an atheist (or one of the minor religions deemed too unimportant to be appeased). The presence of religious leaders in the military is justified by the necessity of meeting the religious needs of soldiers on the battlefield. But West Point is a public college, not a battlefield. Students should be perfectly free to attend any religious services they wish. Speakers should be free to discuss religion in any way they want to. However, the administration of a public college has no business organizing prayer breakfasts.
It’s time to end the double standards, and start treating military cadets with the same respect and freedom all students deserve. If we want excellent military leaders, we need to give them the freedom in college to question and debate ideas. If we ask soldiers to defend our freedom, then we should defend their freedom in college, and reject the idea of infringing upon the liberty of students simply because they choose military service.