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December 13, 2023

Free Speech Should Still Be Protected

But the protection can’t be selective.

The now infamous responses of the three college presidents to whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates their institutions’ rules on bullying and harassment were horrifyingly hypocritical. Harvard, from which I’m embarrassed to have graduated, ranks dead last for climate of freedom of speech according to The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Penn is next to last.  All three presidents have tolerated the humiliation of professors and the cancellation and disruption of speakers who don’t hew to politically correct orthodoxy.  At their universities it is verboten to point out that the chromosomes for gender are binary even if people’s chosen expression of gender is not. Faculty can’t be hired who think it’s racist to talk about “white guilt”.

The answer to the problem of intolerance on campus is not to add antisemitism to the list of forbidden opinions. I’m Jewish but I’d just as soon know who my enemies are. More important I need to hear the arguments of those who disagree with me. I’m happy to argue for my (not unconditional) support of Israel rather than Hamas. Of course violence should be not only banned but punished. The right to protest does not include the right to shout down a speaker or to block the functioning of an institution. Speech leading directly to violent action is not protected (Trump on January 6th?).  But not even hateful or “unscientific” speech should be banned, not by the government and not by a university.

I used to be a proud supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union at the time when they even supported the right of Nazis to march (peacefully). I stopped supporting the ACLU when they decided that some speech was more worthy of protection than other speech. We must go back to the principal attributed to Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The shameful spectacle of the hypocritical college presidents will have been worthwhile if university boards now insist that the institutions protect all opinions and the people who hold them while expelling those who are violent or obstruct the free speech of others. If the unfired presidents now actually enforce and encourage free speech, if they practice what they preach, they won’t have to apologize the next time they don’t shut down a bunch of kids saying stupid or obnoxious things.

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