From Brandeis to Bunkerville, free speech fragile

It’s a long cultural journey between Brandeis University and Bunkerville. But out of those completely different American landscapes came two powerful lessons in free speech.

In the tiny town of Bunkerville near the Nevada/Utah border, the federal government ran roughshod in an attempt to round up a rancher’s cattle from the land his family has used since the 1800s. At Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., administrators rescinded an honorary degree extended to feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Her offense: The intellectual lynch mob said she was “Islamophobic.”

Government repression failed outright in Bunkerville. Academic liberal orthodoxy failed in practice and principle at Brandeis. Both events should serve to remind us of how fragile freedom can be, even in America.

In Bunkerville, give credit to Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. He stood up for the rights of citizens to demonstrate.

Initially, the Bureau of Land Management arrived heavily armed. The first thing it did was not round up cattle, but round up people and put them in a First Amendment pen where the government said they could protest out of sight, out of mind.

It was a stupid move. There can be no freedom if government can restrict the First Amendment to areas of its own convenience.

Sandoval, a former federal judge, gets that, and he used the bully pulpit of his office to tell the BLM in no uncertain words to stand down and cease violating a free people’s right to assemble and speak.

“No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists, nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans,” Sandoval, said. “The BLM needs to reconsider its approach to this matter and act accordingly.”

The BLM released the people from their First Amendment jail and guess what happened? Freedom, in the form of proper, righteous civil disobedience.

Like the civil rights activists of the 1960s, cowboys and patriots put themselves between the BLM and rancher Cliven Bundy’s cows. They blocked traffic on Interstate 15, and like all good protesters became a royal pain in the arse to government.

Eventually, the BLM tucked tail and left.

Of course, the issue isn’t over. The BLM wants Cliven Bundy’s cattle off the land pronto, for reasons not clear at this point. Justice must bring transparency to why the government allowed this cowboy to graze his cattle permit-free for 20 years, only now choosing to lower the boom.

Meanwhile, at Brandeis University, a different kind of oppression took place — a more subtle evil.

The university extended an invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali to address students at commencement. She’s a Somali feminist known for fighting against the oppression of women in the Islamic world.

But the forces of political correctness pressured the university to rescind the invite. It’s nothing new in the world of academia. Just ask Barbara Bush, Salman Rushdie and even Barack Obama — all have felt the sting of this brand of oppression.

But speech in a free country always finds a way. The message Brandeis denied Ayaan Hirsi Ali was published in The Wall Street Journal and is now available to anyone with Internet access.

The tyrants at Brandeis missed hearing her predict a better future for women in Islamic countries because “the pendulum has swung almost as far as it possibly can in the wrong direction.” She said:

“When I see millions of women in Afghanistan defying threats from the Taliban and lining up to vote; when I see women in Saudi Arabia defying an absurd ban on female driving … I feel more optimistic than I did a few years ago. The misnamed Arab Spring has been a revolution full of disappointments. But I believe it has created an opportunity for traditional forms of authority … to be challenged, and even for the religious justifications for the oppression of women to be questioned.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s message won out despite the cowards at Brandeis, just as constitutional freedom prevailed (at least for today) in tiny Bunkerville.

Good outcomes, both. But never forget the fragility of freedom.

Sherman Frederick, former publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and member of the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame, writes a column for Stephens Media. Read his blog at