It took 10 police officers to keep order last month when Brigitte Gabriel gave a speech at Memphis University.
A passionate and powerful speaker who had witnessed Palestinian terrorism and experienced anti-Jewish and anti-Christian propaganda in her native Lebanon, Ms. Gabriel had been invited to speak at the Tennessee campus by religious studies professor David Patterson.
But the day before Ms. Gabriel’s speech, Mr. Patterson began receiving threatening e-mails.
“Do you honestly think the scheduled lecture will serve any useful purpose other than inflaming the Muslims, insulting them and spilling poison in the community?” one message said. Another said that inviting Ms. Gabriel to speak was “worse than hosting of the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan,” and another described her as among “the true enemies of Islam.”
When Ms. Gabriel and Mr. Patterson arrived in the campus auditorium 15 minutes before her scheduled presentation, several rows of seats in the front of the room were already occupied by men and women dressed in distinctive Muslim clothing.
Before Ms. Gabriel was introduced, a Muslim man who has been a long-term graduate student at the university strode to the front of the room and announced: “We have been told that the speaker will only accept questions written on cards. Everyone who believes this is an un-democratic lecture, raise your hands.” The Muslims in the audience shouted their agreement.
Ms. Gabriel then went to the front of the room and announced that the lecture belonged to her and that all who did not see it this way were welcome to leave. Two campus police officers flanked her and called for backup. By the time order was restored and Ms. Gabriel began her speech, 10 police officers were posted in the room. Mr. Patterson implored the audience to give her a chance to be heard.
After her speech, she answered every question submitted – questions she described as “Palestinian talking points” – before the Muslim audience members swarmed onto the stage and surrounded her, yelling angrily. Finally, police officers grabbed her and hustled her out a side door. Someone else had to retrieve her coat and suitcase while she waited in a police car to be driven to the hotel where, for security reasons, she was registered under a fictitious name.
Only after she had locked her door and drawn the curtains did Ms. Gabriel allow herself to begin to tremble.
“The intimidation takes a toll on you,” Ms. Gabriel said in an e-mail message to friends after the Memphis speech. “I was dreading this all day, ever since my hosts told me they had been receiving hostile e-mail about my lecture. It was weighing so heavily on my heart. My stomach was in knots. I got a migraine headache. I knew I was going into battle and there was no way out of it. I was nervous and stressed. Each time this happens, I hate it and it makes me feel that I don’t want to do it anymore. But I will do it. I will never stop. If we stop, the Islamists will have won. We cannot allow that to happen.”
Does the right to work in a non-hostile and non-life threatening environment trump the right of free speech as envisioned by the First Amendment? Is academic freedom more important than telling the truth?
Years ago I was asked to testify in a legal action on behalf of a woman who worked the night shift alone in a small store. As a devout Christian she was offended by the pornographic magazines the store sold. She also felt endangered by the kind of men who came in after midnight to peruse and buy these magazines. She eventually refused to sell the magazines during her shift and was fired.