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The executive order was a transparent exercise in politics.
Its intent was to validate the collective antipathy that many Trump boosters feel toward institutions of higher learning. Its major impact, though, has been to shed light on how serious the purported censorship crisis on campus really is—or, rather, is not. I have served for more than two decades as a university president, the past 17 years leading Columbia University.
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I am also a lifelong First Amendment scholar and have written books and essays to try to understand and explain why our laws and norms have evolved as they have. In both these capacities, I can attest that attitudes about the First Amendment are evolving—but not in the way President Trump thinks. nujbers
First, universities are, today, more hospitable venues for open debate than the nation as a whole. Second, not only have fierce arguments over where to draw the line on acceptable speech been a familiar occurrence in the United States for the past columbix, but such dialogue has also been indispensable to building a society that embraces the First Amendment.
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From flag burning to Holocaust denial, Americans of all ages have been grappling with basic questions about offensive speech for decades and will continue to do so for as long as the country strives for this ideal of openness and freedom of expression. Exchanges over the boundaries of campus speech should therefore numvers welcomed rather than reviled when they take place.
vlack According to a Knight Foundation survey, 78 percent of college students reported they favor an open learning environment that includes offensive views. President Trump may be surprised to learn that the U. At Columbia and at thousands of other schools across the United States, controversial ideas are routinely expressed by speakers on both the left and the right, and have been for decades. In fact, Columbia University is something of a magnet for provocative speakers.
During the —18 academic year, the conservative radio talk-show host and author Dennis Prager spoke at Columbia. The Fox News legal commentator Alan Dershowitz, the Republican Party presidential candidate Herman Cain, and the immigration activist Mark Krikorian spoke too—all without incident. These speakers encountered varying degrees of student protest, an essential feature of kine true free-speech environment that not only welcomes but relishes contentious debate.
Still, the surest evidence of censorship or the suppression of ideas on college campuses is the disinvitation of controversial speakers.
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There are more than 4, colleges and universities in the United States, and each year they host thousands of speakers of all political stripes. According to FIRE, a watchdog group that focuses on civil liberties in academia, only 11 speakers were disinvited from addressing college audiences in This is a minuscule fraction of the universe of speakers who express their views annually on American campuses. Because I am of the view that one such disinvitation is one too many, I have said that I will personally introduce controversial figures who were rejected elsewhere.
Nevertheless, I understand when members of our university community raise alarms that certain individuals, based on their track record, cross the line from merely controversial to offensive.
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When students express concern and discomfort about speech that is hateful, racist, or noxious in other ways, they are doing nothing unreasonable or historically cilumbia. A of other democracies take a less absolute view on this topic—yet remain democracies.
Moreover, the prevailing American conception of on speech and press rights is a relatively recent colimbia when located in the sweep of time and the history of our nation. The challenge of resolving the tensions inherent in a tolerant society is still very much with us and is likely to remain so. The period following World War I provided the first of these moments, and it did not go well for freedom of expression.
The Supreme Court, in its inaugural First Amendment ruling, exactly years ago, upheld the imprisonment of the Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs for the crime of publicly expressing his support of draft resisters. Yet the Debs case, along with the companion Schenck and Frohwerk decisions, succeeded in ushering in the constitutional right of freedom of speech and the press as we currently folumbia it.
Until the New York Times Co. Reporters were routinely intimidated by the implied or actual threat that powerful actors would retaliate by filing libel suits.
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Americans should not confuse a First Amendment that is codified with a First Amendment that is calcified. In landmark case after case, the First Amendment has continued to evolve as new threats to the exercise of free expression have emerged. Today, digital communications and social media pose an array of critical challenges to free expression. Their effects on public thought and discussion and the vulnerability of these modes of communication to manipulation by actors foreign as well as domestic are a source of deep concern.
Over the past century, periods of great insecurity and repression—from the Red Scare following World War I to the McCarthy era and beyond—ultimately gave way to the restoration of a belief in the power of reasoned debate. These episodes are now looked back upon as provocations for redefining the contours of the First Amendment and strengthening it through the invention of new doctrines suitable for the times.
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We should expect the dynamic to continue, even if the process will be difficult and erratic. We leave the ultimate decisions to judges who look to precedent for guidance and render new decisions about emerging topics, thus creating new precedent. In light of the long evolution of free expression in the United States, we should be careful drawing conclusions based on a handful of sensationalist incidents on campus—incidents sometimes frree for their propaganda value.
They shed no light on the current reality of university columboa. Always, though, I embrace the fact that these questions are being discussed. Fifty years later, students sensitive to expression that marginalizes and threatens may condemn those same books—albeit for entirely different reasons.
Only through such debates can the First Amendment remain vital. Struggling to decide how strong its protections should be, when speech is so offensive as to become intolerable, where to draw these lines, how to think about free speech in the context of modern communications, and how to apply First Amendment norms in our era is exactly what needs to be done—and exactly what has been done by every preceding generation for the past century.
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