Speeches & Floor Statements

Opening Statement: Alexander: Universities Should Be Places Where People of Different Views Speak, Audiences Listen, and Contrasting Viewpoints Are Encouraged

Posted on October 26, 2017

Today we are talking about free speech on college campuses – the right to speak one’s mind without being silenced.

As Justice Anthony Kennedy recently wrote, “A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.”

There is a long history of shouting down speakers with whom students and other members of the university community disagree or take offense on college campuses.

Going back to the 1930’s, a student club at the University of Chicago, whose president Robert Zimmer is testifying today, invited William Foster, the Communist Party’s presidential candidate to speak.

This led to protests and criticism, but the president of the University defended the decision to allow him to speak, saying that students “should have the freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself,” and that “the cure lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition and taboo.”

When I was a student in the 1960’s at Vanderbilt University, the John Birch Society wanted D. F. Fleming, my political science professor, fired. They said he was a communist because he thought World War I was a mistake. Vanderbilt defended him and he stayed.

I also remember when the poet Alan Ginsberg spoke on campus, horrifying parents and some students, but Vanderbilt defended his speech.

In his book “North Toward Home,” Willie Morris writes how, when he was a student at the University of Texas in the 1960’s, the American Association of University Professors rose up because the liberal professors were being squelched.

In the mid-1960’s, Senator Ted Kennedy, later a Chairman of this committee and a liberal leader in the Democratic Party, was shouted down at the University of Wisconsin and not allowed to speak because he was considered by the hecklers as not liberal enough.

The University of California at Berkeley became famous as the home of the campus free speech movement in the 1960’s and was known as a campus that protected all sort of left wing causes.

Now, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.

It is usually voices of conservative professors and speakers that are being squelched.

In 2014, after Rutgers University students protested and held a sit-in in the president’s office, former National Secretary Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew from speaking at commencement.

Earlier this year, out of fears of violent protests, Berkeley sought to reschedule Ann Coulter’s lecture to a time when fewer students would be on campus.

One of our witnesses today, Allison Stanger was assaulted by students at Middlebury College as she was leaving a disrupted discussion she had moderated by conservative author Charles Murray.

Fortunately, some liberals with long memories are reminding the left when they were the ones who were being shut down.

Folk musician Joan Baez, who participated in the free speech movement at Berkeley in the 1960s, said, “Let the Ann Coulters of the world have their say,” after Ms. Coulter tried to speak at Berkeley earlier this year.

University leaders such as Robert Zimmer and Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, have both taken action to reaffirm their commitment to free speech.

Another is Nadine Strossen, who served as president of the American Civil Liberties Union and is a witness here today.

Former Vice President Joe Biden said last week, “Liberals have short memories. When I was coming up through college and graduate school free speech was the big issue, but it was the opposite. It was liberals who were shouted down when they spoke.”

But shouting down speakers isn’t the only issue.

There is the question of political one-sidedness, that there is a pervasive point of view on many college campuses

Statistics are hard to come by, but most everyone knows it is true, even at our most prestigious institutions.

A 2014 survey by University of California, Los Angeles on the ideological leanings of college faculty members found that the number of liberal professors compared with conservative professors was about 6 to 1. And in New England, the ratio jumped to 28 to 1.

There are not many registered Republicans in the town of Cambridge either. As of February this year, 3.7 percent of voters were registered as Republican.

When I was on the faculty at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, we laughed that I was part of an affirmative action program for Republicans and conservatives.

I have to give credit to Joseph Nye, the dean at the Kennedy School at the time, for making the effort to bring more conservatives to campus.

While I was teaching at Harvard, I would tell conservative students that they got the best education. Liberal students could be guilty of lazy thinking because they agreed with their professors, while conservative students learned to be on their toes.

Some campuses and some departments have a conservative bent, but not many.

This kind of one-sidedness can result in students feeling uncomfortable when confronted with new ideas.

And then there is the question of deliberately inflammatory speakers, and the protests and riots in response that push the freedom of speech to a limit that creates chaos.

Sometimes these demonstrations turn into tragedy as we saw recently in Charlottesville.

And just last week at the University of Florida, when the white supremacist Richard Spencer was speaking, his supporters and protestors caused the university to spend $600,000 on security, bring in over 1000 law enforcement officers and cause the governor to declare a state of emergency.

It is a familiar problem in a country that prizes freedom.

If you’re a university president, what do you do about this?

How do university presidents respond to the speech and to the reaction to the speech? A recent survey by Brookings Institution found that nearly 20 percent of students believe it is acceptable to use physical force to silence a speaker who makes offensive and hurtful statements.

What about a speaker who just sets out just to be controversial?

If you create an environment that results in tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in security costs, a speaker who can’t speak, and an audience who can’t listen, that’s not a very good result.

We have a distinguished panel today.

We should listen to them and remember Howard Baker’s admonition, that the other fellow may be right.

Universities should be the place where people of different views may speak, audiences can listen, and many contrasting viewpoints are encouraged.

There should be some sensible way to allow that while still protecting freedoms offered by the First Amendment.