Free Speech on Campus

25 February 2017
I will no doubt learn many things from our program on free speech on campus.  But going into the program, here are some things I believe.

1.    The first amendment said Congress shall make no law “… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….”  This was extended to the states after the Civil War, as I understand it.

2.    If another institution abridges freedom of speech, it may be unwise or wrong, but it is not a violation of the first amendment.

3.    All speech is action, and so may fall under rules prohibiting or constraining various types of action. 

4.    For example, here is Stanford Fundamental Standard:

Students at Stanford are expected to show both within and without the university such respect for order, morality, personal honor and the rights of others as is demanded of good citizens. Failure to do this will be sufficient cause for removal from the university.

When a Stanford student posts a picture of a lynching on a the door of an African-American student with the words “Go Home” scrawled across the bottom, that is a violation of the honor code.  If Stanford  expels the student, as I believe it should, it has abridged his or her freedom of speech.  But it hasn’t violated the First Amendment.

5.    Peaceably protesting someone giving a talk on campus is an exercise of freedom of speech, not a violation of it.

6.    When students petition an administration to require professors to warn students if they are going to say something that might offend someone, they are exercising their freedom of speech, by urging the administration to curtail that of others. 

7.    If the administration caves to this, they will be violating the free speech of their professors.

8.    There is nothing about truth per se that gives an idea survival value.  Survival depends on the “environmental niche”.  The universities’ main job, as far as truth goes, is to provide suitable niches, such as labs, libraries, qualified teachers, and the like, that will enhance the survival of true ideas of various sorts. 

9.    Unfettered speech is the right niche for political and religious debates, on or off campus.  But if hate speech and “fighting words” violate other reasonable campus policies, like the Stanford Fundamental Standard, they should be punished.  Such speech on balance discourages open political and religious discussion. 

10.   In the 1980’s, in response to a number of episodes like that imagined in 4, I argued in favor of these policies.  The University did not agree.  This was due, in my opinion, to confusion and a certain amount of cowardice. 

Comments (2)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, August 23, 2019 -- 10:54 AM

I remarked that freedom of

I remarked that freedom of speech is dubious (on your post for August, 2019). Moreover and in spite of that claim, is the part of the first amendment that states: 'congress shall make no law...' And so, regardless of any personal consequences incurred by exercising one's right to free speech, the fact remains: we take it upon ourselves to commit speech acts and are not necessarily protected by LAW when/if we say something which offends or angers someone else. Therefore, it is both imprecise and misleading to say our freedom of speech is 'protected' under the First Amendment. A lot of people take their freedoms for granted, because of the Constitution, not realizing that actions do have consequences and tact and common sense are responsibilities we should all exercise, though we may not have any legal obligation to do so. The right to speak freely is, then, a double-edged sword, just as is the right to believe what we choose to believe. Naivete is no defense.

Lev's picture


Sunday, August 25, 2019 -- 12:15 PM

(1.) The First Amendment

(1.) The First Amendment protects speech from the government, not from the righteous wrath of we the people.
(2.) The last time we let fascists hold rallies, 50 million people died.
(3.) The struggle against fascists on campus is not about protecting students from being offended. It's about protecting society from the resurgence of fascism. Anyone who objects to that is, by definition, a fascist sympathizer. That's what the words mean.
(4.) Fascists have no rights that anti-fascists are bound to respect, least of all the right to attract converts. We tried that once. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" -- George Santayana