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 Princeton Free Speech News & Commentary

Commentary: Progressives failed a lesson in free speech

April 19, 2024 1 min read

Anais Mobarak
Daily Princetonian

Excerpt: Last spring, my Arabic language instructor instituted a policy that non-Muslim students refrain from eating or drinking in class during Ramadan. When I objected to this rule, she told me that the problem with Americans is that we “care too much about our rights.” As such, I was very surprised to see her name appear on an open letter demanding that the administration “defend academic freedom, freedom of speech, and the right to peaceful assembly” in the context of advocacy for “Palestinian liberation.”

Unfortunately, the recent controversy surrounding Charter Club has demonstrated that progressive voices on campus have failed to recognize the value of free speech beyond its usefulness as a political instrument. Thus, as a community, we must work to foster an ideologically-free understanding of free speech.
Read More
Commentary: Will Bardenwerper: The elite students and the professor they wouldn’t eat with

April 18, 2024 1 min read

Will Bardenwerper
Pittsburg Post-Gazette

Excerpt: The article was so bizarre I thought it might be an April Fool’s hoax, given the April 1 byline. The author of “We must not let eating clubs be ideological safe spaces” in The Daily Princetonian had invited a prominent Princeton professor to join him as a guest for lunch at his “eating club” (essentially a private club serving as hybrid dining hall and fraternity/sorority for Princeton juniors and seniors). He later learned that a “group of membership” felt “caught off guard” when they saw the professor, and they were deeply upset by his presence.

If our future leaders are coddled to the point that they cannot share a dining room with an accomplished professor with whom they disagree, where does that leave us as a country? What good comes from four years spent reinforcing the ideas one arrived on campus with?
Read More
Commentary: America, Jews, and the Ivy League

April 16, 2024 1 min read

Tal Fortgang
Commentary

Excerpt: Once upon a time, not even a decade ago, the most important place in the world to me was a nondescript building on Washington Road in Princeton, New Jersey. Sitting in the shadow of Princeton University’s vaunted eating clubs, the Center for Jewish Life hosted daily prayer services, kosher meals, and most of the memorable conversations that made Princeton so formative for me.

It was Cornell’s Center for Jewish Living that was in the news this past October after an undergraduate threatened to “shoot up” the building, “stab” and “slit the throat” of any Jews he saw there, rape any Jewish women he encountered, behead any Jewish babies, and “shoot all you pig jews.” His threat put a fine point on the major dilemma American Jews must now confront. Are the Ivies our Promised Land or, in the post–October 7 era, a place where we might be gathering for annihilation?
Read More