Independence of thought vital to America

Free speech and fresh air work in similar ways to clear the mind. International student Yang Shuping discovered the healing properties of both when she arrived in the United States and breathed deep.

“The moment I inhaled and exhaled outside the airport, I felt free,” she told classmates during her University of Maryland commencement address in May.

The commentary went over well in Ms. Yang’s host country. But outrage spread in her native China when she called out the censorship at home and compared it to the pollution that darkens many Chinese skylines.

State-sponsored newspapers published rebukes, and thousands of commenters piled on with accusations of disloyalty, dishonesty and exaggeration. Anonymous sources encouraged retaliation and even shared the home address of Ms. Yang’s parents.

Overall, more than 50 million viewers watched replays of the speech online, and the clicks kept coming even after Ms. Yang apologized.

Americans might shake their heads at the lack of tolerance on display. The United States — built on the promise of individualism — offers protection in its founding documents to mavericks who break from the party line. Yet the underlying pressure to conform persists anywhere humans gather.

Within the United States, Independence Day 2017 marks the midpoint of an especially rough year for viewpoint diversity. Ms. Yang thrived at UMD, but college campuses in particular have clamped down on dangerous ideas with First Amendment zones, safe spaces and campaigns against politically incorrect speech.

Progress and innovation suffer when societies silence ideas — including false and ugly ones. Ms. Yang’s oxygen metaphor shows why.

People suffocate without air, and something similar happens when ideas get cut off without rigorous debate. People lose the opportunity to comparison shop in the marketplace of ideas, which limits their ability to discover and express who they are as individuals.

Instead, they bury their authentic selves in an effort to satisfy family, community and nation.

I grew up in India and felt this type of suffocation. I learned to hide my authentic self while outwardly conforming to expectations. What I presented to the world was an obedient child — dependable, responsible and submissive. Inwardly I dreamed of independence and a career in academia.

My husband and my children grew up in the United States fearing punishment for telling lies. But I grew up fearing punishment for telling the truth about my aspirations. For 20 years I held my breath.

When I finally arrived in New York as a young graduate student breaking family tradition, I gasped in relief as the oxygen of free speech and thought filled my being. Even today, the shortness of breath returns when I travel home to India.

The tension between authentic and outward self is perhaps most salient in collectivist cultures that put family, community and nation first. But this does not mean the United States has lifted itself above the fray.

Recent responses to controversial speakers at U.S. colleges are eerily similar to the backlash Ms. Yang faced in China.

The Supreme Court put limits on dangerous speech in 1919, using the hypothetical case of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.

People can die in a stampede, so the threat is real and imminent. But some would push the standard further, silencing politically incorrect speech under the guise of elevating discourse or cutting off ideas that might offend or instigate violence indirectly.

Loud, hateful speech makes an easy target for such restrictions. Many guests disinvited from college campuses aim to provoke, so muting their voices might seem justifiable.

Such situations test one’s dedication to free speech. Defending sympathetic characters — like a young college student standing alone against millions — is easy. Supporting the right of an opponent to express views that offend one’s own and public sensibilities requires deeper commitment to the principles involved.

In the end societies fare better when people think for themselves, ask questions and challenge ideas without fear of retribution. Only then can individuals define and develop their authentic selves.

We celebrate more than independence from the United Kingdom on the Fourth of July. We also celebrate independence of thought and speech.

Freedom is oxygen. Without it, entrepreneurial spirit sputters and dies.

Rajshree Agarwal (rajshree@umd.edu)is the director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and a Cato adjunct scholar.

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