Free speech is very much in today’s headlines, especially with the outraged demands for technology companies to banish -- or not -- from their platforms speech they consider incitements to violence or hateful. But the greater danger may be the hostility within our colleges and universities to the free speech and academic freedom of faculty and students, and even alumni, who dissent from the views dominant on campuses today.
Although institutions of higher education are where the minds that will decide our nation’s future are being molded today, surveys show that a high, and growing, number of college students are opposed to free speech and to what the Supreme Court has called the “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”
Free speech is indispensable to the flourishing of freedom and democracy. Academic freedom is at the heart of the very idea of the university and is essential to the advancement of knowledge. Yet both are clearly under attack today.
We have all read of speakers being disinvited because what they might say is “controversial” or hurtful and of visiting speakers being shouted down and even physically assaulted -- such as the author who, along with a faculty escort, was assaulted at Middlebury College in 2017.
We have seen academic writings attacked, and even withdrawn, not because they do not meet academic standards, but because they challenge the prevailing winds of thought. And we are increasingly seeing ideological litmus tests for faculty being proposed, and even implemented, through mandated training courses and criteria for hiring.
These events are just the tip of the iceberg. Increasingly, “controversial” thinkers are simply never invited to speak at all, and no one ever hears about it. They are “canceled” without even being considered, out of fear of possible violent protests or would-be sponsors’ fear of being harassed and shamed. Even more insidious is the impact every day on faculty and students who are afraid to write or say what they think.
As Princeton alumni and lawyers who have a strong belief in the vital importance of free speech – both as a First Amendment right when governments are involved, and as a contractual and a human right when private universities are involved – we, like many others, have heard from students that they are reluctant to say what they believe in class, indeed anywhere on campus, lest they be shunned or even ostracized.
Similarly, many faculty members are fearful that undertaking research or writing articles that might in any way be seen as offensive to the dominant views on campus, whether on matters of political ideology, race, gender, social class, or anything else that engages emotions. They fear not only hostility from their peers but also grave damage to their careers.
This is why we, with increasing support from other Princeton alumni, have founded Princetonians for Free Speech. Free speech is in trouble on campuses across this country, not just at our alma mater. Brave faculty and students who have spoken up have been aggressively attacked on social media and sometimes in public letters signed by large numbers of faculty or students or both. They feel isolated, outnumbered, and exposed. Others see what happens and hunker down.
We have started by appealing to alumni because they are the only university stakeholders who have the numbers and the capability to defend these basic freedoms effectively in campus environments where students and faculty who openly support free speech are outnumbered and outgunned by those who oppose free speech.
Students are being taught what to think by these same faculty (and often by their K-12 teachers). University administrators occasionally stand up for free speech and academic freedom; usually they cave. Only alumni have any chance of tipping the campus scales.
Our experiences convince us that the great majority of alumni -- at Princeton and elsewhere -- support free speech and academic freedom. They care deeply about their alma maters. But they need ways to keep informed about what’s going on, to organize effectively, and to make their voices heard.
While focused initially on alumni, Princetonians for Free Speech invites all Princetonians to stay informed by reading our organization’s website and email updates, which will shine a light on dangers to free speech and academic freedom. Its activities will include sponsoring speeches and debates on free speech issues on campuses and the Internet and providing a place where free speech supporters can organize to engage in campus controversies.
Some students and professors, as well as a growing number of alumni, are already reading the website and preparing to stand behind students and faculty who exercise their rights to express their views.
Our unity will come from a singular focus on free speech and academic freedom. We will not take positions on individual issues of any kind unless directly related to those freedoms. We are nonpartisan and have a broad range of political views in our leadership. We will defend free speech and academic freedom for all – left, right and center.
On our website, we also post classic, enduring words of wisdom from more than 20 great thinkers on free speech – from Martin Luther King to Frederick Douglass to George Orwell to Margaret Chase Smith to another Princetonian, James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights. To those students and faculty who do not support free speech today, we commend the words of the late Congressman John Lewis: “Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings.”
The campus battles on free speech and academic freedom are making fewer headlines in this era of COVID-19 lockdowns. But they are simmering below the surface, perhaps waiting to erupt when more faculty and students return to campus this spring. Issues critical to the future of our democracy and to the pursuit of knowledge are at stake.
On some campuses, the very survival of the university may be at stake. In recent weeks student and faculty strikes effectively shut down Haverford College and nearby Bryn Mawr College. Students who did not participate in the strikes were shamed on social media. How many students will return to these schools next year? How many parents will want them to? How much will the schools’ application numbers fall?
In these times, it may be that alumni -- organized alumni -- are the only hope to save many universities from a similar fate. Alumni regularly organize to support athletic teams, to participate in clubs, events, reunions, and more. This is much more important.