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Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Speaking about free speech on a college campus

At the University of Southern Maine in Portland, my alumni university, where I achieved my bachelors degree in nursing, the recently installed President Dr. Glenn Cummings reported to his staff about a free speech experience recently hosted on the campus. In his weekly "Missive" an informal message he posts to the University staff, Dr. Cummings, a former Maine legislator and Speaker of the House in Augusta, wrote this report, describing the participation in a planned program (following the Missive, is a letter to the editor, about the program, by Katherine Besteman):

Glen Cummings

Dr. Glenn Cummings
Dear USM community,
I look forward to seeing everyone as I return from my trip to Beijing, Dalian and Shanghai, for the purposes of recruiting for The International Academy at USM and for meeting with our sister university Dongbei, in Dalian. We discussed more international exchanges as well as proper USM faculty governance of our Chinese curriculum. Never having visited the Far East, I found the experience powerful - particularly the infrastructural and economic achievements of a rapidly growing society. A clear sense of collective mission and national pride exists at seemingly every level of society. More unsettling is the tight restrictions on access to information as well as personal expression. Heavily prescribed economic and social dictums from the communist central government raise questions about how a society best creates the 'most good for the most people' - the utilitarian ideal.

Speaking of free speech, allow me to extend my admiration to the many students and community members who peacefully assembled in Hannaford Hall and appropriately challenged or supported the conclusions of visiting speaker Rep. Lawrence Lockman on the Thursday evening, before vacation.

Rep. Lockman described, in his lecture, a legislative bill he has introduced this session in the state house calling for tighter immigration policies and restricting resources to new arrivals and asylum seekers. His position contradicts the basic ideals of our university that emphasizes inclusion and diversity as essential to a full education, wrote Dr. Cummings.

During the question and answer period, the students, and community members challenged his conclusions, his logic, and the ethics of his assumptions - displaying what an engaged and educated student body and citizenry looks like.

With the exception of some protesters inappropriately disrupting a simultaneous event in Woodbury designed to encourage thoughtful dialogue, I was proud of the conduct and approach of our university community. Starting with the Student Senate's thoughtful and productive position the previous week, the USM student population made itself a national model for resisting hate and discrimination while adhering to non-violence, and respect for civil discussion. Many universities failed at this; our students and community friends succeeded.

photo of Representative Lockman
Rep. Lawrence Lockman of Amherst Maine; his district relies on 2000 immigrant and migrant workers to support a successful blueberry harvest!

In advance of the event, many in our USM community expressed their understanding to me of the need in a democratic society - and a university - to uphold freedom of speech and expression, even if many of us strongly disagreed with the content of the expression. Others, however, argued that any individual who proposes policies out of alignment with many in our university community (especially someone who has indulged in seemingly nasty and hateful comments in the past) ought to be censored from speaking at a university altogether. Their position tempts many of us. After all, why must we listen to someone like that? (Hmmm, MaineWriter observes how Rep, Lockman has spoken offensively about minority groups as reported in the media, although he subsequently issued public apologies.)

Several things come to mind. First, no one HAS to listen to such a position. Ignoring an event like this makes a statement as well, even if protesting peacefully in person may make a stronger one.

Second, Rep. Lockman's policies may be abhorrent to many of us, but he IS relevant. His party controls one body of the legislature, the governorship and all of Congress. His views align tightly with the man now in charge of the White House. Whether we like it or not, his positions are very real. What better way to place his position under the microscope of intellectual scrutiny than bringing him to a university? And scrutinize is exactly what our student body did. They engaged in thoughtful but tough questions and challenged his basic assumptions at every point.

Third, the door of free speech swings both ways. What we take away from one can be taken from the other. Should a request come from a different USM student group to bring speakers from the opposite perspective, it will undoubtedly draw criticism and cancellation demands from some sectors. But be assured, we will stand our ground in allowing speakers of all stripes to speak free at USM.

I hope this is helpful. For those who would like to discuss this event with me personally, I have set up a couple times for me to be available for that purpose. They will be on Thursday, March 2nd at 5:00 PM and on Friday, March 10th at 4:00 PM. Both sessions will take place in the President's Office. Please feel free to stop by.

Thank you all for making us proud of USM. 

A letter to the editor by Katherine Besteman followed up this program: WATERVILLE — I attended state Rep. Lawrence Lockman’s University of Southern Maine talk on “Alien Invasion” last week, not because I agree with his position, but because I don’t. I have spent a decade studying the impact of immigration and refugee resettlement in Maine. I’ve written on the importance of refugee resettlement programs, the benefits to Maine of welcoming immigrants, the positive economic impact of refugees on Maine and the forms of solidarity and support that immigrant communities build. I believe Maine should welcome immigrants and refugees, but Lockman views immigrants as a threat and a financial burden. His recent and forthcoming legislation punishes Portland for failing to require police officers to ask the citizenship status of those with whom they come in contact and holds Catholic Charities accountable for any crimes committed by refugees they have resettled. He supports the recent executive orders to halt immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and all refugee resettlement. The legislator seems terrified of immigrants, and I wanted to try to understand why.

Here’s what I learned.

Most of Lockman’s speech recounted various acts by immigrants that harmed or might have harmed Americans: the two Iraqi men in Bowling Green, Kentucky, found guilty of attempting to provide weapons to al-Qaida in Iraq; the two immigrant men who passed through Maine before leaving the country to join the Islamic State; the three men who may have been immigrants who beat Freddy Akoa to death in Portland; the 9/11 hijackers.

Listening to the enumeration of these tragic but unconnected events, I struggled to follow the logic. Should the U.S. bar immigrants because some might become radicalized after immigrating? Should all immigration be halted because some immigrants commit crimes? Is Lockman suggesting that immigrants have a tendency toward radicalization or criminality?

I agree, that it’s important for government to provide safety and security for residents. But I cannot understand Lockman’s insistence that U.S. citizens should fear immigrants because some may be dangerous. More Americans are killed by white extremists than by foreign-born terrorists. More Americans are killed by animal attacks or heat waves than by foreign-born terrorists. Americans are more likely to be killed in a shark attack, by a lightning strike or by falling furniture than by a foreign-born terrorist.

Immigrants do not commit crimes at higher rates than non-immigrants; in fact, all available evidence indicates immigrants commit fewer crimes and have lower rates of incarceration than non-immigrants. Lewiston offers a close-to-home example: Since Somali and other immigrants began moving there in 2001, crime rates have fallen. Immigrants, it seems, actually make cities safer, not more dangerous.

The other concern offered by Lockman was his view that taxes should not be used to support immigrants, illegal aliens or refugees. But residents who lack legal status cannot receive public assistance; resettled refugees receive support only for 90 days after resettling in the United States (after which they are expected to be self-sufficient), and the offer of public assistance to other legal immigrants is based on the presumption that because they have earned the right of admittance to the U.S., they are entitled to the same benefits as other citizens when they fall on hard times. The real issue is whether or not we wish to welcome newcomers into our society and offer them the same civil rights our ancestors fought hard to achieve.

I believe that the 2,000 migrants who work the blueberry harvest in Lockman’s home region every year should have access to the same public services – medical care, workplace safety, legal protections – available to their citizen co-workers. I believe the immigrants who overwhelmingly staff American restaurants, provide elder and child care, harvest and process food, clean homes and offices and much more, deserve exactly the same access to public services as their citizen neighbors, including 
assistance when they are injured, lose a job or experience a family emergency.

Denying immigrants access to public services when they are between jobs or have a crisis is not only inhumane, but also self-destructively short-sighted. Short-term investments in immigrants pay long-term dividends. Look at Lewiston’s Somali residents – who, within a decade of their arrival, are sending their children to medical, law and nursing schools, speaking before the United Nations, running successful businesses, winning state and national competitions and revitalizing farmland in central Maine.

In short, immigrants make American cities better, not worse, and Lockman’s fear-mongering cannot alter that simple, long-standing truth. Take a trip to Lewiston and see for yourself.

In fact, MaineWriter drives to Lewiston at least once to three times a week.  I totally agree with the assessment by Katherine Besteman.

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