Barney Frank entered the House of Representatives before most Duke students were born. 

Frank won his first race in 1980, noting that the reason he was able to run in the first place was because Pope John Paul II told Frank’s predecessor Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest, and other priests to leave political life. Frank narrowly won both the primary and general election that year with about 52 percent of the vote. At the time, he was hiding the fact that he was gay.

“For me, the first pressure for the first seven years I was in Congress was how to deal with the fact that I was a closeted gay man,” said Frank, who was on campus last week. “That was self-imposed pressure on me and I finally figured out that was stupid. It wasn't worth it. I came out and from then on, the pressure was self-imposed about how to maximize my effectiveness.”

Frank’s experiences as a young gay person may have informed his thoughts on free speech, a topic that came up at his talk at the Sanford School of Public Policy last Tuesday. Frank noted that he along with other gay and lesbian people were told that they shouldn’t engage in public displays of affection, such as kissing their partners or holding hands in public, because it made other people uncomfortable. 

“Well, I said, ‘Tough, I’m going to do it,’” he responded. 

Free speech applies to everyone, he added. If gay people can express affection that makes some people uncomfortable, others should have the right to make anti-gay comments that make gay people uncomfortable.

“It’s either free speech or it’s not free speech,” Frank said.

Wes George, a graduate student in the public policy program who attended the talk, said that he disagreed with Frank on this issue and argued that not all speech should be protected. 

"[For example], you can’t yell fire in a theater,” George said. “I do think hate speech on publicly-funded college campuses should be one of those areas, and I don't think he necessarily was very responsive to that.”

Another topic that came up at a separate event with Frank was Americans’ souring attitude toward their government. At Wednesday’s panel with Frank and Rubenstein Fellow Sarah Bloom Raskin, the former congressman explained that government had become very unpopular after the 2008 financial crisis. 

He said people would look at government more favorably if politicians did a better job explaining that the programs they advocate for are an aspect of government. 

Frank also commented on the polarization in Congress, noting that during George W. Bush's time as president, bipartisan compromise was still happening. However, after Barack Obama’s election, extreme groups like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party came to power, the latter being more “smart” about their political efforts. He described how moderate Republicans lost their primary races to more extreme candidates in 2010.

“The Republican Party was taken over by the people who were not interested in governance and who were not interested in reaching across the aisle,” Frank said.

He noted that the polarization, which has been “very one-sided,” has stifled the ability of congress members to compromise. He specifically highlighted the recent bipartisan compromise on health care by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, the leaders of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  

“They've come to an agreement about how to make the health care bill work and the rest of the Republicans said, ‘No, f*** that. We're not doing that,’” Frank said, noting that Democrats in the Senate were receptive to the idea.

Still, Frank did point to an area where compromise is happening in Congress—the Senate Banking Committee. He said that Democrats and Republicans were in “negotiations” to improve the Dodd-Frank Act, the financial reform bill that he helped write after the 2008 financial crisis. 

Although he noted that Dodd-Frank would be tough to repeal, he said there are ways Trump could undermine it, such as appointing people who don’t exercise its powers to the fullest extent.

“The basic legislation will stay in effect, but it will be used much less vigorously as long as Trump is president,” Frank said. 

Both George and senior Sarina Weiss said Frank's visit to campus offered a great opportunity for students to meet the congressman and hear him speak. 

“I think it’s extremely important to have speakers like Frank on campus to provide students with a diversity of personal accounts of political careers and opinions,” Weiss wrote in an email.

Weiss and George had lunch with Frank, who also visited their Public Policy class. They said that Frank, who has a reputation of being outspoken, was fairly candid in his remarks to students.

For Weiss, who is from Frank’s congressional district, the biggest takeaway from his visit came from his comments on “pessimism” in politics.

“The most significant thing he said to me was ‘pessimism is no reason not to do anything’ which definitely gave me a new outlook on what is happening now in politics,” she wrote. “Even when faced with two options that seem poor, that doesn't give you an excuse not to choose.”

Frank said that the only way people are going to change Congress or see reform on important issues like gun regulation is by electing new leaders. Despite low voter turnout among young voters, he was hopeful that young people would vote in upcoming election cycles now that Trump is president.

“If that doesn't get them to vote, I don't know what to do,” Frank said.