Princeton University is on fire. Not literally, but in debate. And what’s the big issue? Free speech. Here’s where I land.
Last April, the Princeton faculty voted to adopt the major portion of a freedom of expression statement that the University of Chicago faculty committee issued last January. By doing so, the university was committing to “academic freedom and freedom of expression as essential to the university’s educational mission.”
Nevertheless, with college students across the nation seeking protection from offensive language on campuses, some Princeton students, like Evan Draim and Sofia Gallo, founders of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, are fighting back.
Rather than looking to Chicago’s present school system for answers, I believe the students and faculty at Princeton University – as well as other academic institutions – should look back to America’s founders like Thomas Jefferson and his philosophy of education for answers regarding academic goals or how to handle things like free speech.
A few years ago, I wrote four columns asking whether or not Thomas Jefferson would approve today’s public education, including universities. In 1810, after two terms as president, he penned, “No one more sincerely wishes the spread of information among mankind than I do, and none has greater confidence in its effect towards supporting free and good government.”
Thomas Jefferson believed that any form of educational restrictions would only enslave the human heart and mind. In 1816, he explained, “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. … I believe it [human condition] susceptible of much improvement, and most of all, in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is effected.”
Of course, Jefferson’s proposals for public education weren’t perfect. Even he reflected some of the cultural biases of his day. Chief among them was his view on limited education for women and slaves. But that doesn’t mean that he would have opposed their complete education in a more liberating era.
In fact, according to the Library of Congress, Jefferson wrote to Quaker Robert Pleasants and advised that slaves should have a system of education based upon his 1784 plan for public education in Virginia as one step in preparing those who were “destined to be free” under our new republic.
In addition, regarding Jefferson’s own daughters, he believed it was “essential to give them a solid education which might enable them, when become mothers, to educate their own daughters, and even to direct the course for sons, should their fathers be lost, or incapable, or inattentive.”
It is no surprise, therefore, that on Dec. 26, 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Destutt Tracy about his vision for the University of Virginia: “This institution of my native state, the hobby of my old age, will be based upon the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation.”
One day later, he wrote to William Roscoe a similar but expanded thought: “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
And let’s not forget that academic institutions like Princeton, Harvard, Yale, as well as other Ivy League schools, were founded on freedom of expression and religious liberty. Indeed, they were sectarian. They were denominational and ministerial training grounds.
Thomas Jefferson, like our other founders, would have never, ever advocated limiting free speech or any form of education. He espoused the greatest exercises and extents of liberty – among them free speech and religious practice.
Of course, Thomas Jefferson was not alone in his concerns for preserving liberty in academia and government. In particular, all of America’s founders knew any restrictions to freedom of speech would eventually lead down a slippery slope of enslaving us by stealing away other liberties, too.
Benjamin Franklin said, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”
James Madison, so-called “father of the Constitution,” said, “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
John Adams adamantly stated, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Nevertheless, he fought for others rights to exercise their freedom, even those he opposed: “Government has no right to hurt a hair on the head of an atheist for his opinions. Let him have a care of his practices.”
I respect all people and persuasions, but suppressing free speech is nothing short of unconstitutional. It chaps my hide when some try to cripple Americans’ rights in the U.S. Constitution, and chief among them is our First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and religious practice.
It seems that I have to explain this at least once a year. I dislike vulgar, profane and hate language as much as anyone. But America has a protection for its expression. It’s called the First Amendment, and I am tired of people trampling it by wrongly interpreting it as a right for only feel-good expression.
If that constitutional decree doesn’t protect the worst of language, then what is it protecting? What is freedom of speech all about? It wasn’t a coincidence that our insightful founders saw that liberty and power – corrupted in the wrong hands – could be used to suppress the very liberty and power they were trying to secure and protect.
As I wrote in my New York Times bestseller, “Black Belt Patriotism,” there seems to be a double-standard when it comes to free speech in society: Shall certain camps be expected not to offend while others are free to do so? If the First Amendment is not also there to protect anyone’s offensive speech, then what type of speech is it protecting? And if it protects even unpleasant and distasteful speech as well, yet our culture remains intolerant of offensive speech, then have we not abandoned the First Amendment?
I don’t care what your cause is. I don’t care what your mission is. I don’t care what the issue is. I don’t care what your beliefs are. It is every American citizen’s constitutional right to express and exercise free speech and religious beliefs without fear of repercussion. It’s simply un-American and unconstitutional to impede, harass, threaten or persecute anyone who is guilty of nothing more than sharing their opinion, whether in the private or public square or university. This is America – not some Middle Eastern dictatorship.
Evan Draim explained his and others’ advocacy and goals to preserve free speech at Princeton: “We’re trying to fight for diversity of thought, and we’re trying to fight back against a politically correct culture on college campuses that tells people that they have to hold certain opinions based on their race or gender or sexual orientation. We want to defend our students’ rights to form their own independent opinions separate from the judgments or the intimidation of peers.”
I commend Draim and Sofia Gallo as well as others who fight with them to preserve the very rights America’s founders fought to secure for us. They follow in a long lineage of true patriots and real educators.
Draim and Gallo, don’t ever forget what George Washington said and to remind others of his warning: “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”