Recent, Fascinating Free Speech Essays

A number of very interesting pieces on free speech have been published recently that are well worth reading. In Inside Higher Ed, Professor Samuel Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College discusses new data showing that conservative professors, despite being a distinct minority on many campuses, often show higher levels of job satisfaction than their peers in the liberal majority.

Professor Abrams develops a series of hypotheses about why this is, including the following:

I realized that viewpoint diversity is increasingly absent on college campuses and, despite pushback from faculty members and students, I took great comfort in seeing it as a personal and professional mission to present my students with a greater variety of ideas and frameworks for thinking about the world….

Accordingly, I taught my classes with the desire to correct this troubling intellectual imbalance in mind. To my surprise, swimming against the current and being part of the out-group made my teaching and work with students an unexpected joy.

Professor Abrams’s reflections are valuable to anyone interested in questions of intellectual diversity on campus.

In the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has an essay on “The Value of Fighting Attacks on Free Speech Early and Often.” He argues that

It doesn’t make much sense to wait until a civil right or settled norm is attacked so pervasively that a large portion of the population has suffered harm before defending it. I’d prefer to protect the vulnerable individuals or groups first affected…and thereby preempt pervasive harm.

His argument relies on both historical and contemporary examples to show the necessity of taking proactive steps to protect civil liberties.

In the Washington Post, Judge José A. Cabranes warns that “If colleges keep killing academic freedom, civilization will die, too.” Reminding us of Chief Justice Warren’s words in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, he argues that

Either “teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate,” or “our civilization will stagnate and die.” There was no third option.

Discussing the importance of the tenure system for academic freedom, Judge Cabranes says that universities “must develop and maintain procedures that protect professors’ ability to teach and learn without fear of retaliation.”

In the New York Times, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Donald P. Moynihan asks “Who’s Really Placing Limits on Free Speech?” He answers that, while students from many elite schools often push for limits to allowable speech, in his own experience the most dangerous culprit is government. He writes,

[M]y colleagues and I have been given much more reason to worry about the ideological agendas of elected officials and politically appointed governing boards. Students can protest on the campus mall, demanding that policies be changed; elected officials can pass laws or cut resources to reflect their beliefs about how a campus should operate. One group has much more power than the other.

Moynihan’s view is that “Free speech on campus has survived and will survive challenges from students and other members of civil society. Its fate is much less certain when the government decides to censor discomforting views.”