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David French discusses free speech on college campuses

Free speech introduces dissent and disagreement, and can introduce critical thinking on college campuses, David French, a staff writer at National Review, said in a lecture Tuesday.


French began by describing college as a place where one could explore “dangerous or contentious ideas in the classroom.” He said that during his college experience at a highly conservative college, he did not see any chastisement or rebuke of diverging thoughts on controversial issues.

He added that at the time, he viewed free speech as a mechanism for having difficult and infuriating conversations, and as something that improved and sharpened the mind.

French explained that upon arriving at Harvard Law School, his perception of free speech changed. Shortly after arriving, he spoke out in dissent against a student who had expressed views on the opposing end of the political spectrum, albeit in a polite and conversational manner. He said he was taken aback to hear hissing and booing spreading throughout the classroom, having never encountered such a harsh reaction.

Shortly after coming to school, French founded "The Society for Law, Life and Religion," what he believed to be the first dedicated pro-life student group on campus. The group was met with considerable push-back. According to French, the group received a collection of hate mail. French explained that he once asked a professor to refrain from referring to an unborn fetus as a clump of cells but was met with unintelligible screams from the professor and several students.

French explained that in his view, the professor had made no actual argument – she simply focused on silencing his dissent.

“There’s a difference between silence and persuading,” he explained.


French said that his time at Harvard Law School was the first time he had seen the exercise of free speech viewed as a threat. He then discussed the movement to prohibit intolerance, adding that the definition of intolerance is inherently vague. As a result, many people choose to refrain from voicing their opinions on controversial issues, thus silencing their voices.

When one engages in large-scale efforts to censor free speech, French explained, there is no persuasion. Rather, there is intimidation and browbeating, creating an atmosphere that fosters resentment.

“Censorship brings divisions and ultimately tyranny,” he said.

French said that every social movement has been based on the ability to speak freely. The removal of that right will not stop the push to create change – people will just seek to change their situation in harsher and less peaceful ways, he said.

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French explained that the way people express themselves is constrained by a society where there is a dominant ideology. The anger many feel towards this circumstance has resulted in the popularity of figures such as Donald Trump.

He explained that many people are used to immediately voicing their dissent and do not make the effort to listen to other viewpoints. French noted that this is a flawed mentality, because people must learn self-denial and delayed gratification.

“It’s a very hard counter-cultural message,” he said.

French is a veteran of the Iraq War, and a participant in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He said that when he served in the Iraq War, American soldiers around him would wake up not knowing if they would live through the day. “They [the soldiers] were sacrificing everything, everything, for freedoms that we are often reluctant to exercise. You have to have courage in your convictions,” French added.

French also recently published the New York Times best-selling book, “Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore.”

Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article omitted the Princeton Tory from the list of sponsors. The 'Prince' regrets the error.