Free Speech appears to be on the ascent again– thank God. Although President Obama recently advocated for increasing online censorship in an address at Stanford, Elon Musk’s recent flirtations with Twitter seem to have signaled a possible rare victory for free speech advocates.
The location of the 44th president’s speech should be noted. Almost poetically, the academy–the cradle of free speech–has produced the most vociferous opponents who would like to see free speech to its grave. UC Berkeley began the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s when Berkley student’s sought to exercise their First-Amendment right to support civil rights and oppose the Vietnam War. Berkley displayed a reversal on free speech in 2016 when students rioted, and the university shut down a campus Free Speech Week that featured Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, and Steve Bannon.
While this censoriousness has become endemic across academe, the Ivy League and the private universities have been particularly egregious offenders. Princeton was rated the worst university in the nation for speech, by FIRE, in 2021. Williams College disinvited Suzanne Venker because she wrote an editorial for Fox News that was critical of feminism and–in a disturbingly Stalinist move–Fordham’s President came out with a hysterical statement, practically tearing out his hair, over an appearance Ann Coulter was set to make at the Catholic university before she was (eventually) disinvited due to the “choice” of Fordham’s College Republicans.
After students protested they no longer felt safe after someone wrote “Vote Trump” in chalk on a few sidewalks and stoops on Emory’s campus, Emory’s President put out a bizarre statement that subordinated “courageous inquiry” to the sense of a “safe environment.”
“As an academic community, we must value and encourage the expression of ideas, vigorous debate, speech, dissent, and protest. At the same time, our commitment to respect, civility, and inclusion calls us to provide a safe environment that inspires and supports courageous inquiry.”
One would likely scratch their head until they hit their brain stem if they tried to figure out how inquiry can be “courageous” if it is “safe” and how a chalking sincerely made students feel they should ‘fear for their lives’ (as one Emory student told the Daily Mail).
The public universities have been similarly disappointing. Virginia Tech, University of Tennessee, and California State have been weak on Free Speech, with the latter disinviting Ben Shapiro when they learned he planned to criticize the Black Lives Matter movement.
Recent video showed students at the University of North Texas (UNT) raid and effectively shut down a Young Conservatives of Texas event organized in support of a conservative candidate running for office in Texas.
These events combine to illustrate the status of free speech in the American academy. They show that the free exchange of ideas is in jeopardy across geographic regions and levels of academic prestige.
Notably, the University of Alabama is one of the few–perhaps the only–public or private university in the country where freedom of speech seems to flow naturally.
In April, a speaker set up a booth on the Crimson Promenade with a sign bearing the phrase “No One IS Born Gay.” The speaker’s booth received many visitors, and while the event became a little raucous, it never turned violent, and the speaker was allowed to make his points. Neither administrator nor student shut down the speaker.
True to Alabama form, students responded with dignity by organizing a counter-protest later in the week, arranging a Gay Pride demonstration that stayed entirely peaceful and allowed the group to voice their dissent.
Since I first toured this university in 2014 (before becoming a student here in 2017), the University of Alabama has hosted about every political and cultural figure imaginable, from Milo Yiannopoulos, to Jesse Jackson, to Margaret Attwood, to Ben Shapiro, to (then) President Donald Trump.
At no point during any of these figures’ presence at the Capstone was there a threat of riots, and at no point did the University ever (publicly) consider revoking their invitations. The events attended by the figures were sanguine, and student’s never attempted to use the ‘heckler’s veto’ to shut down debate. There weren’t even protests against these figures. Correction–one person did protest Milo Yiannopolous–but Milo rather magnanimously descended the staircase of the Ferguson Center and gave the lonely chap a water bottle before continuing with his address to the College Republicans as planned.
The University of Alabama is a rare safe harbor for the free exchange of ideas. In the collegiate setting, where the only commodity more valuable than Adderall is tenure (because of its ability to foster debate and expression), it is peculiar that so many universities would fail to defend civil discourse. Whether it is the intense school spirit that fosters a genteel sense of communal respect towards others on campus, or perhaps (simply) our uniquely southern manners that forbid us from behaving as buffoonishly as students and administrators at colleges in other areas, the University of Alabama has unfailingly upheld the civility necessary for the free exchange of ideas.
In Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky identifies isolation as the key component for breaking one’s enemies. “Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.”
Isolation is the essence of censorship and today’s ‘Cancel Culture.’ When one cannot exercise speech because of the systematic denial of a platform, the speaker is isolated, and freedom of speech is denied.
This tool for silencing has become all too common in American universities in recent years; however, its function is also its greatest flaw. Isolation requires uniformity. If one university fights back, if one university gives a platform to the silenced, the silence is broken. When all is quiet, even a church mouse can be heard as clearly as a lion’s roar. All it takes is for one institution to be brave enough to break the silence.
The University of Alabama can help fight against censorship in academia (and the United States at large) by picking up the torch of free speech dropped by UC Berkeley. The University of Alabama should make a perennial Free Speech Week a fixture of the academic calendar, with other speaking events interspersed throughout the year.
Of course, all of the most prominent speakers and provocative intellectuals that the university can reasonably accommodate should be invited. However, the university should make a special effort to invite those who have been previously targeted for their ideas. When Berkeley self immolates, when hecklers at UNT veto a lecture, when university presidents rudely decry a speaker their university just invited to campus–UA should be on the phone asking what the speaker’s fees are.