This was the scene at the fourth Davis Levin
First Amendment Conference at the Hilton Hawaiian Village presented
by ACLU-Hawai‘i and the Robert Rees Trust on March 26.
Strossen and Starr were opponents in a debate over the First
Amendment. While most in the audience were looking for a good
old-fashioned chicken fight, what they got was more like a
tit for tat between mommy and daddy.
The debate started with Starr and Strossen in basic agreement
over congressional intervention into the Terry Shiavo case. Starr
said meddling from congress and the president was “unwise.” He
also said that, as a conservative, he supports the “culture
of life,” but he also supports state rights—which
in his view, congress violated. Strossen went much further, saying
the intervention was downright unconstitutional.
Fonseca then led the two debaters into a rehashing of the controversial
2000 election, a novel conversation about Ward Churchill, flag
burning, and even the anti-abortion truck seen driving aimlessly
through Honolulu streets.
Fonseca quickly briefed both on the situation: a truck is often
seen cruising the city displaying on its side large grotesque
photographs of an aborted fetus. Starr gave the usual “culture
of life” answer. Strossen gave an answer unpopular with
many in the audience. “That’s an easy one,” she
said, “I protect all speech, even what I find abhorant.”
Strossen recalled a preacher in New York who often loiters
outside of the ACLU offices knowing ACLU workers must pass.
them daily for their defense of abortion. But she insisted that
she protects his and all other’s right to speak freely,
even when she is in disagreement.
Strossen and Starr had their share of disagreements as well—mainly
on the topic of same-sex marriage. Starr said that Americans
should not be quick to decide in favor of it, and that “same-sex
marriage needs to be debated and legislated” without haste.
He also said marriage between a man and a woman is fundamental
to maintaining a healthy society. His comments received a fair
share of applause.
Strossen launched back saying Starr’s comments were a “very
eloquent and learned exposition of a series of positions” with
which she completely disagrees. She said the greatest tradition
of American society was laid out in the Declaration of Independence—all
people are created equal. She said, “I don’t see
the right to choose an abortion or the right to choose your spouse—your
life partner—as given to us by the courts. I see them as
given to us by virtue of being human being.”
Strossen compared the same-sex marriage struggle to interracial
marriage back in the 1960s and ended with a prediction that we’d
see gays marrying within the next decade. Her comments received
long, thunderous applause.
The same-sex marriage debate was possibly the only heated moment
in the debate. And at that, it was more of a match than a fire.
In the end, no blood was shed, no eyes were gouged out—Fonseca
and the audience experienced a fairly cordial debate. Maybe next
year Strossen could face off with former Attorny General John