In recent years, too many American campuses have lost ground to anti-free speech fanatics. The routine is predictable. First, a group of students protest what they see as a speech-related injustice. Perhaps it’s a campus statue of a historical figure they don’t like, or a perceived act of discrimination. This is all well and good. Such protests prove the civic vitality of our society.
But then the college leadership responds and one of two things occur. Either an effective remedy is agreed, or the students escalate. When it comes to restricting individual rights, the escalation is where the problems begin.
After all, whatever the original target, censorship never has just one victim. It afflicts the entire academic institution. Witnessing the victory of mob rule, others on campus are deterred from controversial discussions. And beyond physical safety (as opposed to “safe spaces”), nothing is more important to an academic institution than the free exchange of ideas.
Too often the protesters succeed in chilling speech. Fortunately however, this week brought a rare victory for intellectual sanity.
The hero: University of Virginia (UVA) President Teresa Sullivan. Her story is worth regaling.
The day following the election, Sullivan referred to UVA’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, and called on UVAers to come together.
“We define ourselves,” Sullivan said, “by a shared commitment to reasoned discourse, mutual respect, and steadfast support for every member of our community regardless of race, religion, or any other human difference. Political elections will come and go. The values that we share will remain a timeless source of affirmation and hope.”
Too often the protesters succeed in chilling speech. Fortunately however, this week brought a rare victory for intellectual sanity
Simple, but eloquent words. Except for Sullivan’s reference to Jefferson, an Enlightenment visionary, author of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. president — and former slave owner. UVA Professor Noelle Hurd drafted a fierce response that quickly attracted the signatures of nearly 500 faculty and students. She warned, “although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it…” (evidently Hurd and co.’s “spite” against Jefferson was insufficiently traumatic when balanced against UVA salaries!). Hurd concluded, “the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey. We understand desire to maintain traditions at this university, but when these traditions threaten progress and reinforce notions of exclusion, it is time to rethink their utility.”
At first glance, this response is philosophically sclerotic (utilizing “1984”-style subjective rhetoric such as “progress”) and easy to dismiss. But when one reads Hurd’s webpage and finds her research interest is “promoting healthy adolescent development,” the smile should turn to a frown. It’s clear that someone who has dedicated her life to psychology genuinely believes that free contemplation isn’t that important. And nearly 500 bright minds agree with her assessment.
The good news? In short order, Sullivan parried Hurd’s riposte.
“Quoting Jefferson,” Sullivan explained, “does not imply an endorsement of all the social structures and beliefs of his time…” And she reminded the UVA community that “Jefferson’s most influential and most quoted words were ‘. . . all men are created equal.’ Those words were inherently contradictory in an era of slavery, but because of their power, they became the fundamental expression of a more genuine equality today.”
Note the reversal on Hurd’s “because of” statement. Sullivan did not respond to a request for comment, but a UVA spokesperson told Opportunity Lives that the university president “will continue to quote Mr. Jefferson.”
Although Sullivan won this debate, too few faculty leaders share her courage. That such an exchange even had to occur highlights the intellectual decay on U.S. campuses today. Indeed, it is only one element of the rot at UVA. Another quiet war against free speech remains underway. And it has familiar figureheads.
Re-enter Noelle Hurd.
Two weeks before the election, UVA’s student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, reported “Hurd said several racially discriminatory acts which have taken place around [UVA] Grounds this semester may have been provoked by the kind of rhetoric used by Trump.” On its own, that statement is a great stretch without evidence. But in the context of what’s happening this week at UVA, Hurd’s words and deeds become more nefarious.
This week, a student-led group called “End Hate Speech at UVA” is leading a drive to crack down on free speech. Again, at first, it is somewhat laughable. For one, the drive involves faculty opening their offices to students who, post-election, are “currently grieving and feeling their livelihoods are at risk.” Yet digging into the details, the ambitious authoritarianism behind “End Hate Speech” becomes clear.
Students and faculty on Tuesday explained their ambitions for the campaign. Running to 66 minutes, most of the speeches were passionate, albeit overloaded with discombobulated collections of big words. But the defining moment came when longtime UVA politics professor Michael Smith stepped up.
“Our goal here and now,” Smith said, “must be to call out hate speech as a dangerous precursor to violence.”
Like Hurd, Smith believes that free speech is dangerous. But Smith extended that philosophy to its natural end: condemning hate speech is insufficient. “For too much of our history,” he said, “law and the state has not [defended our mental being]. And now we have to change it so that the law protects us and does not persecute us.”
His implication was undeniable: “hate speech” should be banned. The congregation liked what it heard: Smith’s speech received two warm rounds of applause.
What’s happening at UVA is happening at many campuses around the country. Like their counterparts in Europe, the American activist Left is determined to purge speech it believes is unjustified. That this agenda is distinctly authoritarian and wholly at odds with the American tradition does not concern them. James Madison’s awareness that maximal speech is necessary for a free society to remain healthy and free is long forgotten.
James Madison’s awareness that maximal speech is necessary for a free society to remain healthy and free is long forgotten
Fortunately, American law holds firm. Contemplate the landmark 2011 Supreme Court case of Snyder v. Phelps. That case involved despicable protests by the Westboro Baptist Church about 1,000-feet away from a U.S. Marine’s funeral. But by an 8-1 margin, the court ruled in favor of the protesters. Chief Justice John Roberts explained why.
“Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro,” Roberts wrote for the court. “Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. The speech was indeed planned to coincide with Matthew Snyder’s funeral, but did not itself disrupt that funeral, and Westboro’s choice to conduct its picketing at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech.”
Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
Students across America should contemplate that opinion. Absent obscenity or the intent of imminent, likely-to-occur unlawful violence, hate speech must be defended. Not for natural virtue per se, but for the virtue it offers society. The freedom of the republic demands our unrestrained contemplations and debates.
Put simply, I’m going with Jefferson, Sullivan and Roberts, over Hurd and Smith.
Tom Rogan is a foreign policy columnist for National Review, a domestic policy columnist for Opportunity Lives, a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TomRtweets.