Panel on “Free Speech on Campus” at the Educational Writers Association

May 17th, 2018

The Educational Writers Association–a group of journalists who write about education–invited me to speak on a panel at their national seminar. The topic was “Free Speech on Campus.” One of the panelists was a Professor from Middlebury College, who self-identified as the pro-protestor speaker. My remarks begin at 26:45.

I was there in two capacities–both as someone who writes about the First Amendment, and a case study about the First Amendment. Now that the semester has drawn to a close, I plan to write about this event in far more detail. In the meantime, do read Nadine Strossen’s post at the Oxford University Press Blog, titled “First they came for Josh Blackman: why censorship isn’t the answer.” Here is an excerpt:

A recent case in point: CUNY law students disrupted Professor Josh Blackman’s 29 March talk on “The Importance of Free Speech on Campus”—a special irony—with extended heckling, posters that declared “Fuck the Law,” and other epithets that could themselves be considered “hate speech.” (I use quotes because “hate speech” is not a legal term of art, with a spe­cific definition; rather, it is deployed to stigmatize and suppress widely varying expression. The term’s most generally understood meaning is expression that conveys hateful or discriminatory views against specific individuals or groups, particularly those who have historically faced discrimination.)

Having watched the video of the whole disturbing CUNY incident, I admire Professor Blackman’s handling of the disruptions with dignity, reasonableness, and a willingness to persist in speaking. But I was sad to see that the slogan-shouting students—future public interest lawyers!—apparently had so little confidence in their ability to express their disagreements via rational discourse. In contrast, I have great respect for the African American student who said he disagreed with Blackman and therefore was sitting in the audience in order to listen and respond to his views.

One reason for the CUNY students’ fury was that Blackman’s talk was sponsored by the Federalist Society, whose mission statement describes it as “a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order.” Even if one disagrees with some Federalist Society positions, it must be recognized that the group, to its credit, promotes debate and discussion of constitutional law issues. Moreover, some of its core founding principles could have come straight from the ACLU’s playbook: that “the state exists to preserve freedom”; and “that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution.”

Some of the reasons why Professor Blackman was deemed persona non grata at CUNY Law School also apply to me (despite whatever “liberal” credentials might be attributed to me as the immediate past president of the ACLU). For example, I too have spoken about free speech issues at the behest of the conservative- and libertarian-leaning Federalist Society (whose events are often co-sponsored by the liberal-leaning American Constitution Society, which was founded precisely to serve as a counterweight to the Federalist Society).

I am pleased to report that my stature and strength played no role in this event, which was held at USC Law.