I am honored to join fourteen distinguished colleagues at three of the world’s foremost institutions of higher learning in encouraging the young people joining us on campus this year to think for themselves, and to speak their minds. Each of us came to our joint statement by an idiosyncratic pathway, but each of us was drawn by the shared and pervasive reality of growing hostility to free expression on college campuses across the country and around the world. While I can only speak authoritatively about my own reasons for becoming a part of the communique, my reasons are evidently somewhat similar to those of the other signers.
Freedom isn’t free, and that includes freedom of speech. While the right to free speech is intrinsic, and so exists whether it is respected or not, actually being able to speak your mind without the frisson of terror that awaits subjects of totalitarian regimes who forget to self-censor is another matter. But the erosion of free speech comes upon us as wind in dry grass. It took us a while to realize that, like a dank smog inversion in a heavily trafficked city, the strange consumerist notion that discordant opinions are a violation of some unwritten code of intellectual hygiene that has gradually turned the landscape of ideas an eerie sunset shade of ochre, blurring one’s intellectual vision and causing many people to cough up wheezing conformist platitudes. But, this is what has happened! Instead of thrilling to Patrick Henry’s brave words: “Give me liberty or give me death!”, all too many members of our intellectual community now appear to be casting about for one of the book alarm boxes from Ray Bradbury’s dystopic “Fahrenheit 451” so they can denounce ideas they dislike. In a darkening atmosphere of censorship, expression isn’t about whether assertions are true or false, but rather about how one feels about what someone said, and statements that one does not like are to be silenced, regardless of their intellectual merit.
So, each of us came by her or his own route to the realization that, self-evident truth or not, the new cohort of students arriving on our campuses, and on campuses around the world, needed us to affirm the importance of finding one’s own path toward the broad intellectual horizons of higher education. One suspects that eventually women and men of good will will look back on these years in wonder that so many people had lost sight of the fundamental virtue of free speech. Not only is free expression intrinsically valuable, but it is also the essential building block of all intellectual inquiry, without which learning and progress become impossible. We all have other, substantively interesting things to talk about, and we shouldn’t have to point out the obvious, but free speech is the hemoglobin that runs through the veins of higher education in particular, and of a free society more generally. Without it, the University, and the society that supports it, both die. If you think I am exaggerating, consider the events of eighty years ago, and the speed with which the German university system collapsed into devastation under the strictures of Nazi censorship.
I had come to believe that one of the great constants in life was the breezily confident Princeton undergraduate with an utterly idiosyncratic idea (that she or he thought would be easy to carry out), that I, with a bit more experience, suspected was not quite right, and that despite that, and despite the blithe confidence of the thesis author, it would be turned into an interesting senior thesis anyway due to the sheer grit and audacity of the author. Over the past decade, I have more than occasionally encountered Princeton seniors who, instead of confidently espousing their own eccentric view of the world, proposed theses built around platitudes, and who showed an unsettling reluctance to exposit controversial conclusions, even when the research pointed that way. It hasn’t been all of the students, but it hasn’t been none of them either. I want my brazen, free thinking, quixotic undergraduates back! So, in the hope that the new cohort of young people arriving on campus finds a brighter and freer environment, I joined in penning our statement.
John Londregan is a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at the University. He can be reached at email@example.com.