Paul L. Caron

Monday, April 17, 2023

Promising Signs For Free Speech At Stanford And Other Elite Schools

New York Times Op-Ed:  Promising Signs for Free Speech on Campus, by David French:

Stanford Law (2022)William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” has been called the most plundered poem in the English language, and it’s easy to see why. The poem, written in the immediate aftermath of World War I and during the height of the Russian Civil War, vividly captures the feeling that events are sliding out of control. Three lines in particular resonate in troubled times. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” writes Yeats. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” ...

 The extremist attack on free speech (from right and left) degrades American democracy, and that attack is especially acute on college campuses, whether it comes from angry left-wing students who shout down conservative speakers, vengeful right-wing legislators who pass laws restricting free expression in the academy or the online activism that often demands that universities discipline scholars for engaging in provocative (but constitutionally protected) speech.

I’ve never interpreted the center in Yeats’s poem to mean something like a politically moderate middle but rather a moral foundation, the ideological core of a nation and its people. The United States is certainly a nation built through raw power, as so many nations are, but at its best, it’s also built around a series of ideas, a declaration that its center requires, at a bare minimum, the promises of the Bill of Rights, including freedom of speech.

This isn’t a column about doom, however, but rather about hope. There is no question that the worst are still “full of passionate intensity,” and we do live in a precarious place in our national life. But there are also some signs that the center is fighting back on some of the most elite campuses in the country, that some of the “best” still do, in fact, possess the necessary convictions. I litigated free speech issues on college campuses for almost 20 years, and I’ve never seen such widespread, institutional academic support for free expression.

Let’s take Stanford University, for example. In the days and weeks since law students shouted down and disrupted a speech by a federal judge, the center has taken a stand. The dean of Stanford Law School, Jenny Martinez, penned a powerful, 10-page memorandum that mandated a half-day of instruction on free speech and legal norms, reaffirmed the school’s dedication to the Stanford Statement on Academic Freedom and declared: “Unless we recognize that student members of the Federalist Society and other conservatives have the same right to express their views free of coercion, we cannot live up to this commitment nor can we claim that we are fostering an inclusive environment for all students.”

Then there’s [Cornell, Harvard, and Vanderbilt] ... That’s four elite American academic institutions that have doubled down on free speech in just one month.

And we cannot forget the University of Chicago. Since 2014, it’s arguably been the single most influential academic institution in the United States supporting academic freedom. Its statement on free speech declares the “university’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrongheaded.” A version of the Chicago statement has been adopted by almost 100 colleges, universities and state university systems, including Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University and the North Carolina and Wisconsin state university systems. ...

The First Amendment cannot be tied to one side of our partisan divide. It’s not a Republican value or a Democratic value but rather an American value, and it’s a value that’s particularly important in the academy. ...

Free speech is indispensable to the American idea. It protects us from tyranny more thoroughly and effectively than any other constitutional right. As Frederick Douglass proclaimed after his own brush with mob censorship, “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.”

America’s most elite academic institutions can, in fact, demonstrate conviction. The “passionate intensity” of the extremes remains, but the center can hold. Douglass was correct. Free speech is the “dread of tyrants,” and sustaining that freedom — against left-wing protests and right-wing lawmakers — will preserve America’s democratic experiment. There is no path to American equality or justice absent the freedom of speech.

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