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Free Speech Fireworks Are a Reminder of Why We Need Free Speech Protections

August 14, 2020

August 14, 2020
By Jonathan Butcher

Some ideas underwriting our trust in civil society are always in need of attention—even during a pandemic and recession. This summer, Princeton University reminded us that the right to speak freely is one of those ideas and that free speech on college campuses remains under threat, even when students are not physically present.

On July 4, hundreds of Princeton faculty launched an academic fireworks display, signing a letter with demands ranging from a call for administrators to give “seats at your decision-making table to people of color” to the removal of a John Witherspoon statute from campus. The letter arrived in the wake of the tragic George Floyd incident and the violent riots that followed, making the statement a response from these faculty members to current events. Whether you agree with the demands or not, the letter was well within the authors’ rights to produce.

As was the rejoinder from Joshua T. Katz, professor of classics at Princeton. Katz responded with concerns that “there are dozens of proposals [in the July 4 letter] that, if implemented, would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate.” Despite his disagreement with much of the letter’s contents, he said if his colleagues signed it “independently and thoughtfully, good for you.”

Yet Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber wanted none of Katz’s statement and said Katz “failed” to “responsibly” exercise his right to free expression. According to Katz, university administrators said they would be “looking into the matter further,” a thinly veiled threat if ever there was one (Katz wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he is no longer under investigation).

Details of the July 4 letter and the response aside, such is the muggy atmosphere surrounding expression on Princeton’s campus this fall as students return for what will be, at least initially, only online instruction.

What this current environment needs is an affirmation of the right to speak freely, on and off campus. Earlier this week, a set of leading academics and representatives of liberty-protecting organizations released the “Philadelphia Statement,” a restatement of basic truths, including that freedom of expression on college campuses and elsewhere remains in crisis.

The statement sits above the partisan squabbling that has so mired Washington, a welcome reprieve before election season this fall: “Dissenting and unpopular voices—be they of the left or the right—must be afforded the opportunity to be heard.”

The initial signers include those who have been silenced on campus themselves, such as Charles Murray, whose experience at Middlebury was one of the first high-profile examples of students using the heckler’s veto to shout down a visiting lecturer. Goldwater Institute CEO Victor Riches, Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow Mike Gonzalez, and Ethics and Public Policy Senior Fellow and Goldwater Institute collaborator Stanley Kurtz are also among the initial signers.

The statement’s foundational ideas serve as a prompt for state policymakers and university officials to recommit their schools to the protection of free speech. The statement is based on the idea that more speech is needed when groups find disagreement, not less—the opposite of recent federal proposals dealing with campus expression.

State and university policies adopted in North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin and, most recently, Alabama, are designed so that anyone lawfully present on a public college campus can protest or demonstrate there and creates room to make such speech possible. A recent federal proposal threatens to remove any federal spending if a school adopts a speech code, effectively impinging on a school’s ability to function. This may gratify some who feel colleges’ progressive bent has put them beyond redemption, but the proposal would also result in a larger U.S. Department of Education footprint through investigations, potentially causing less speech and jeopardizing postsecondary opportunities for individuals that may have had nothing to do with a campus shout down or adoption of a speech code. This runs counter to ideas that would limit Washington’s reach.

This smacks more of revenge than fostering a public culture where we can “disagree robustly, even fiercely” while trying to create a “political life that is productive and inspiring.” Free speech on campus needs protection, reform no less, but this should come from state and university officials committed to “passionately promoting robust civil discourse.” The Philadelphia Statement can help to make this pursuit a legacy for policymakers and citizens, even in the stifling conditions of a pandemic and oppressive cancel culture.

Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.



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