An Important Day for Free Speech and Academic Freedom

March 12, 2021 3 min read

Princetonians for Free Speech Editorial

Monday, March 8, was an important day for free speech and academic freedom on campuses across the United States.  On that day, the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) was officially launched, with over 200 professors and emeritus professors from a number of universities as initial members. The purpose of the AFA is to support free speech in academia, including through legal support for those who have their free speech and academic freedom challenged.  The AFA has a Legal Advisory Committee made up of noted lawyers with experience on First Amendment issues to support its efforts.

PFS strongly supports this very important initiative. As a group of Princeton alumni, we are particularly proud that the AFA was started by Princeton professors, including Keith E. Whittington and Robert P. George. We highly recommend you read the interview of Professor Keith Whittington, by PFS President Stuart Taylor, Jr, which appeared on our website the day the AFA was announced.

Too often these days it is only the loudest voices that are heard in the political arena and in campus debates, including debates on free speech and academic freedom. Often these voices represent the extreme ends of the political spectrum and are well organized. If there is any chance to uphold free speech and academic freedom, those who support these critical values must be better organized and speak louder.

Professor George gave an apt analogy about the Alliance in an interview by Wesley Yang that was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He noted that when lions attack a herd of zebras, the zebras run off in different directions, leaving the targeted zebra alone and vulnerable. But when lions try to attack a herd of elephants, the elephants stay together and protect the targeted prey. Too often, he said, when an academic has been attacked for exercising free speech or for an article or research, that professor has suffered the fate of a zebra rather than enjoying the protection of a herd of elephants. AFA intends to act more like a herd of elephants.

PFS and the AFA share common goals, and we believe alumni should work with the AFA to further the support of free speech and academic freedom on campuses. The high-profile battles in which the AFA may engage – legal actions to protect wronged academics – will be important in and of themselves. But the value of the AFA will be much greater than that. Many matters will be resolved behind the scenes. Furthermore, after a few open battles, university administrators will learn it is not in their interest to try to violate the rights of academics, just as lions have learned not to go after elephants.

And beyond that, it is so important that academics, and students, feel someone has their backs. This point cannot be over-emphasized. In the short time since PFS was founded late last year, we have talked to a number of professors and students at Princeton who were very pleased to know that there was a group of Princeton alumni who would support them and have their backs if they spoke up.  Surveys show that academics and students often feel isolated, like that zebra, and understandably are reluctant, even afraid, to speak, write or teach their true beliefs. Our discussions with academics and students at Princeton and elsewhere demonstrate in real life the truth behind those surveys. Clearly support groups like the AFA and PFS will enable academics and students to feel freer to speak up.

Importantly, the AFA, like PFS, is non-partisan and is committed to supporting free speech and academic freedom for all. That must be the case. The AFA has many notable members from across the political spectrum.

The AFA is off to a great start, and we are told that the immediate reaction from across the country was very positive. We are sure the organization will grow and gain strength rapidly. At PFS, we hope that alumni of Princeton and other universities will support the AFA and that the alumni of other universities will also organize, as alumni have done with PFS at Princeton, to provide another avenue of strong support. A combination of academics and alumni would be a loud and potent voice for the values of free speech and academic freedom. These values are critical to the very existence of universities as we know them, critical to the knowledge and values of today’s university students, and critical to the future of our country.

Leave a comment

Also in National Free Speech News & Commentary

Commentary: Abolish DEI Statements

April 18, 2024 1 min read

Conor Friedersdorf
The Atlantic

Excerpt: This month, Professor Randall L. Kennedy, an eminent scholar of race and civil rights, published an op-ed in The Harvard Crimson denouncing the use of diversity, equity, and inclusion statements in academic hiring. “I am a scholar on the left committed to struggles for social justice,” he wrote. “The realities surrounding mandatory DEI statements, however, make me wince.” But a “contrasting perspective” on diversity statements that the Crimson published argued that “furor over diversity statements in hiring is a red herring.”

But people who see the flaws of the status quo should not be seduced by the illusion that tweaking how DEI statements are solicited or scored is a solution. In fact, interviewing Hall, the ostensible reformer in the Harvard Crimson debate, left me more convinced that abolishing DEI statements is the best way forward.
Read More
Columbia President Weathers Grilling Over Campus Antisemitism

April 18, 2024 1 min read

Katherine Knott and Jessica Blake
Inside Higher Ed

Excerpt: Columbia University President Minouche Shafik carefully and repeatedly condemned antisemitism over the course of a nearly four-hour appearance before Congress on Wednesday. She denounced the speech and actions of some pro-Palestinian professors and student protesters. She made clear under questioning that she considers the oft-changed slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” to be antisemitic, though she noted that other people don’t hear it as such.

But judging from the responses she received from Republicans on the House education committee, none of that might be enough to keep Shafik or Columbia—or its faculty members—from further Congressional scrutiny.
Read More
Letter from President Saller and Provost Martinez to Class of 2028

April 18, 2024 1 min read

Letter Reposted by Stanford Alumni for Free Speech and Critical Thinking

Excerpt: A copy of a letter sent by Stanford President Richard Saller and Provost Jenny Martinez to students who have been admitted as freshmen for this coming fall has now been made available publicly.

We believe this is a very powerful statement about free speech, critical thinking and what should be expected in an academic community, not just at Stanford but nationwide. We urge readers to take a look and even consider forwarding it to other interested parties.
Read More