The Necessity of Free Speech for Racial Justice

Anyone interested in free speech on campus should read Jonathan Zimmerman’s latest piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Zimmerman argues that the fight for racial equality, far from being necessarily hostile to free expression, actually requires the latitude to speak one’s mind freely. Zimmerman reminds his readers that “just about every great fighter for racial equality in our history was also a warrior for free speech,” and discusses the free speech legacies of such luminaries as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois. Zimmerman goes beyond the historical, however, and applies these lessons to the present day university. He writes,

In short, if you didn’t have freedom of speech, you couldn’t counter any other injustice. That’s a lesson that some of today’s student activists — and some college administrators — seem to have forgotten. Although courts have consistently found campus speech codes unconstitutional, hundreds of colleges continue to discipline students for saying the wrong thing. Faculty members, too, have come under fire.

Let me be clear: If students think a faculty member is racist, they have every right to say so. But nobody has a right to limit someone else’s speech, via institutional prohibitions or star chambers or anything else. That’s precisely what white America tried to do to the NAACP and other African-Americans. We insult their memories when we silence one another in the name of racial justice, which will never be served by the restriction of free speech.

The full essay is well worth reading for the timely and pertinent connections it makes between the past and the present, as well as the important relationship between civil rights and civil liberties.