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Rex Smith is editor/vice president of the Times Union and a host of "The Media Project," a nationally syndicated weekly program produced by Northeast Public Radio. 

He can be reached at

On Twitter: @rexwsmith

Rex Smith

Free speech's value hinges on listening
By Rex Smith

Deep inside each of our inner ears, within a spiral known as the organ of Corti, are as many as 23,500 minuscule hair cells that act as our auditory receptors, passing along messages to the brain that enable us to hear.


You might think that with all that cellular material involved, and with brains that have developed (unsteadily, yes) for about 1.8 million years, we would be better able to hear each other.


Just now, though, the messages we're sending back and forth seem to be having about as much effect as white noise. We're hearing, but not listening, on both sides of the political divide.


We're led by a president who, unlike his predecessors, is only too happy to further crack open that gap: Two-thirds of Americans in an ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week say Donald Trump has done more to divide the country than to unify it (and, incidentally, 59 percent say he hasn't brought any needed change to Washington). The president doesn't care about that; he says he is quite happy with his job performance, suggesting that he isn't listening to the majority of citizens whom he disappoints.


Long before Trump's presidency, when he was just a buffoonish reality TV star and con-artist developer, many of us had decided that the best way to deal with views we don't like was to try to stop them from being heard at all, and to cocoon ourselves amid people who are just like ourselves. We had already forgotten that an honest exchange of views is fundamental to a democracy.Yet as careless as Trump clearly is with the moral authority that has always attached to his office, and as dismissive as he is of a president's responsibility to try to unify Americans for the common good, it would be wrong to place all the blame for our growing hostility to each other on Trump's shoulders.


Some people in Washington at least pay lip service to the notion of free speech. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaking this week at Georgetown University, made some points that were, in theory, quite correct. He took particular aim at the growing disregard for the First Amendment in higher education, saying that the college campus ought to be "a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas." Who can disagree with that?


Yet an administration that truly values free speech wouldn't be so hostile to its expression by professional athletes — and now even some local high schoolers — who are making a statement by kneeling as "The Star-Spangled Banner" is played before a game.


It might try to hear what those athletes are saying, and listen to the message of other players who locked arms before a game. Maybe it's a protest of alleged police brutality against African-Americans, as Colin Kaepernick intended when he played last season, or perhaps a defense of their right to express themselves, or simply a sign of solidarity against a president who ranted against their fellow athletes, calling them SOBs.


We would have to listen to know.

Kneeling, after all, has always been a sign of deep respect. We kneel to pray, to propose marriage, or to accept a great honor. Taking a knee during the national anthem strikes me as a respectful way to protest, which has always been cherished in this country, at least in the abstract.

But the notion of listening to each other is devalued in so many ways nowadays. There's evidence of this sad sensibility both at the top of our political system and in our everyday exchanges.

When Congress moves to enact legislation important to all Americans — involving health care, for example, or taxes — and doesn't allow open and thorough discussion of the issues, it is trying to shut down the debate that it is morally bound to encourage.

Remember, the House bill to repeal Obamacare was kept hidden in a Capitol basement this spring until the failed effort to pass it without a single committee hearing. A similar process is shaping up for the massive tax reform legislation that was announced this week: Congressional leaders have laid out the framework of a bill, but the important details seem likely to be kept secret until just before voting begins. It's as though they don't want to have to listen to any complaints you may have.

It's cheap talk when an attorney general scolds colleges for being hostile to right-wing speakers on campus, even as his thin-skinned boss attacks the quiet but deeply-felt expressions of opinion on playing fields, and as his political pals scurry for cover rather than welcome debate on the issues before them.

If political leaders truly care about free speech, they ought to welcome it everywhere, and set an example by listening when America is trying to be heard.

(originally published in the Times Union Sept. 29, 2017. Reprinted with permission.)

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