The continuing collapse of the 1st Amendment

By Nat Hentoff

This nation’s leading rescuer of the First Amendment arguing before the Supreme Court, attorney Floyd Abrams, now warns of another rising danger.

Speaking on Oct. 23 at the 15th anniversary of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), he warned the only organization as actively devoted to the First Amendment as he is about the damage to free speech caused by college campuses retracting invitations to public speakers.

“If litigation (as FIRE is doing) is one necessary tactic to deal with such speech-limiting policies, the other is simply exposure of the misconduct, with the attendant public shame that follows the exposure.

“What, after all, other than shame, is deserved by Brandeis University for offering and then withdrawing an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirst Ali for her criticism of Islam; by Smith College for withdrawing an invitation to Christine Lagarde, the first woman to head the IMG (International Monetary Fund); by Rutgers, for so embarrassing former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that she declined to appear.

“And just a few weeks ago, George Will’s invitation to speak at Scripps College in California was effectively withdrawn after controversy over the invitation.”

Before continuing, I must proudly acknowledge that Floyd Abrams has been my personal First Amendment mentor for decades.

He continues with a concern I’ve written about often here:

“What’s going on? It’s hard to resist the conclusion that too many of our college students evidently needed high school civics courses since they seem to have no idea what the basic thrust of the First Amendment – and free expression more broadly – is all about.”

Abrams continues: “And they are not alone. It shows me how many people – educated people, including scholars – seem to believe that the First Amendment should be interpreted as nothing but an extension and embodiment of their generally liberal political views.”

Floyd then speaks to all of us, not just the audience that evening at the FIRE anniversary. What he says is not being taught in the great majority of our public schools as he quoted Justice Robert Jackson:

“The very purpose of a Bill of Rights is to foreclose public authority from assuming a guardianship of the public mind through regulating the press, speech and religion. ”

Please focus on what follows and thereby spread this essence of who we are:

“Every person must be his own watchman for truth, because the forefathers did not trust any government to separate the truth from the false for us.”

Abrams adds: “That’s not uniquely liberal or conservative; it is freedom-protecting, nothing more or less.”

The censorship of our free speech by the Bush-Cheney administration, and the even more restrictive Obama government, demonstrates why, as Justice William Brennan once told me, the First Amendment is our quintessential weapon against such freedom-pulverizing governments:

“It is the First Amendment from which all our other liberties flow,” by enabling us to protest and organize against an overwhelming government.

As for the current and growing contempt for the First Amendment at so many of our colleges and universities, Floyd Abrams emphasizes:

“One should not really have to say that of all places, campuses should be most protective of the broadest level of freedom of speech. Or that speakers should be permitted to have their say, instead of being booed off the stage as former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was at Brown last year. Or it is disgraceful that, as FIRE’s findings reveal, such topics as abortion, gay rights and the war on terror were the cause of many disinvitation incidents, and that the amount of disinvitation incidents has risen dramatically over the last 15 years; and that Harvard – you’ve heard of Harvard, I’m sure – has the most disinvitation incidents.

“What can one say about this other than to quote from the statement of the American Association of University Professors that, in the clearest language, observed that ‘on a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing, that it may not be expressed.'”

Then Floyd Abrams brings us champion of free expression Oliver Wendell Holmes when, before the Civil War, he was a Harvard undergraduate and a student editor of Harvard Magazine:

“We must,” Holmes wrote in 1859, “have every thought brought before us when we are young, and we may as well at once prepare for it.”

Floyd summed up by quoting from a book that should be available to every college student: “The Shadow University,” by Harvey Silverglate and Alan Charles Kors, leading to their becoming founders of FIRE:

“In a nation whose future depends upon an education in freedom, colleges and universities are teaching the values of self-censorship and self-righteous abuse of power.”

As Floyd says: “That was true in 1998, when their book was published and, alas, it seems even more true today.”

I ask parents among you readers: To which college campuses will you be sending your sons and daughters?

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