On Free Speech and Offense in Public Spaces

One man’s experience at the doctor’s office.

By Timothy Furnish Published on May 5, 2024

One of Christ’s best-known statements is that “a house divided against itself will not stand.” It appears in all three synoptic gospels, and our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, used it during his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas. The phrase may have cost him a Senate seat but it almost certainly helped him win the presidency two years later.

Of course, America’s polarization during the Civil War was worse than at any other time. Nonetheless, we are still quite divided, both politically and religiously. (And many Americans think Joe Biden is just aggravating our societal wounds.)

We’ve all run into this personally, I suspect. Friends dropping us from their social media feeds because we voted for the other guy — or even just said something positive about him or her. Discussions at work devolving into personal attacks on your view of abortion or aid to Ukraine. Even, God forbid, arguments at church because the priest or pastor didn’t preach about the Israel-Hamas war — 0r took the “wrong” position on it. And while both conservatives and liberals can act like this, the latter do so more frequently.

And of course we see on the news, daily, that our college campuses have become divided to the point of actual violence. (Although the Leftist agitators, if they really wanted to punch Nazis, would be engaging in massive amounts of self-harm.) It’s 2020’s Antifa/BLM riots all over again, just leavened with more antisemitism. But that’s the impersonal blob, mob mentality in action. You can avoid such unpleasantness, by and large, by staying off modern college campuses.

What’s more disturbing (and probably more common) is when someone you don’t know attacks and tries to silence you via the “heckler’s veto.” Or, more accurately here in 2024, the self-declared “victim’s veto.” As happened to me earlier this week — at my cardiologist’s office, of all places.

Cardiology Conviviality

I was in for a stress test before an upcoming surgery. I was one of five patients sitting in the pre-test waiting area. All of us had been injected with whatever mysterious concoction allows the CCTA machine to scan for heart blockages, and we were waiting our turn to get that done.

I was talking to a nice Egyptian-American fellow (an accountant), who was there with his father who spoke little English. (My no-longer fluent Arabic provided a nice intro.) It turned out both are Copts (Egyptian Christians).

A lady nearby soon joined in, identifying herself as Catholic, and our joint conversation ranged widely, from previous medical treatment to Middle Eastern history (once I was outed as a recovering professor), and then to modern politics.

My new Egyptian-American friend and I agreed that Trump, for all his faults, was at least a competent chief executive. Our female interlocutor chimed in that the economy was in very good shape under Trump before COVID shut it down. I pointed out that one thing I’ve learned from 15 years of teaching college history is that good men (and women) can make bad leaders (Jimmy Carter). And quite flawed ones make excellent rulers (Constantine, Trump).

Trump Derangement Syndrome in Action

About that time another gentleman (to be overly kind) sitting in the area erupted. “You all need to stop talking about this! I’m offended! Trump is a f****** criminal!”

The rest of us looked at one another in shock. Not that someone disagreed with us, but that he thought his taking offense should silence others.

I responded, “Sir, I’m sorry you’re offended, but that doesn’t give you the right to shut us up.”

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The Coptic accountant told him, “This is a public space, sir, and we don’t have to stop talking about this.”

More f-bombs followed from The Gentleman, who looked to be about my age. This wasn’t some clueless college kid.

I told him “Sir, we have every right to carry on such a discussion. If you don’t like it, perhaps you should sit somewhere else.”

He then stormed off back to the main waiting room (as I discovered when I left).

Doctors’ Office Speech Code?

But wait! It gets worse.

One of the nurses came to us a few minutes later and said the office manager had ordered us to “stop talking about politics and religion.”

We all disagreed, and said we had every right to talk about such matters in a public space. I told her I’d find another cardiologist if they tried to enforce that speech code.

As I was finally being taken in for my heart scan, the same nurse said, “I agree with you and not with the manager. But I was told to pass on her feelings.”

How Did It Come to This?

I realize it’s anecdotal, but this incident is both depressing and encouraging.

Depressing because we must ask: How on earth did we get to the point in America where an adult thinks that “being offended” is a trump card? (Mind you, this took place in rural Georgia, not some blue enclave.) And why does a business manager thinks she can control customers’ speech?

But it’s encouraging because the most vociferous defense of the First Amendment came from a Middle Eastern immigrant — who clearly understands and appreciates what America stands for better than a native-born citizen does.

In another context, a famous ruler once asked “What can men do against such reckless hate?” Granted, I was in a doctor’s office, not defending Helm’s Deep, when this happened. But the sentiment that cursing, small-minded fellow expressed is, indeed, Orcish. Multiplied, it threatens to bring down the political house through the constant, corrosive undermining of our constitutional rights. Should Trump win the presidency again, as seems increasingly likely, “progressives” will have three options: live with it; continue eating away at our political foundations; or blow everything up.

Lincoln also said in his famous speech that while “I do not expect the house to fall, I do expect that it will cease to be divided.” Let’s hope, and pray, that our fellow citizens on the Left will come to share that sentiment.


Timothy Furnish holds a doctoral degree in Islamic, world and African history from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor, and occasional media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He currently writes for and consults with The Stream on matters of international security.


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