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.

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