The executive order — the signing of which I was honored to attend — will tie federal funds to real, measurable reforms that ensure that colleges and universities allow and protect the free expression of beliefs and ideas. Though some critics say this sets a dangerous precedent and could introduce politics onto the playing field.
Suzanne Nossel of PEN America wrote for CNN, “Such measures are intended not to keep speech open, but rather to put universities on notice that they are being watched and will face the consequences if their decisions fall afoul of politics.”
Here’s what she gets wrong: The freedom of speech isn’t political. It’s the precursor to politics. It’s a precondition that ensures all sides of a debate can be heard.
PEN America is an organization founded by luminaries such as Robert Frost, Willa Cather and Eugene O’Neill (PEN stood for Poets, Essayists and Novelists), and still says its mission is to “protect free expression in the United States and worldwide.”
It was Frost, we should remember, who said “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”
Like many on the left, PEN America has strayed from the true path by embracing a new version of free speech that can include the very opposite, such as de-platforming, disinviting speakers and the “heckler’s veto.” To be fair, PEN America doesn’t endorse these practices, but its new philosophy could certainly encompass them.
“While liberal values and principles remain fundamental, the implications of these precepts necessarily evolve from generation to generation, reflecting social changes and new norms,” PEN America’s Principles on Campus Free Speech says. “No cohort has the power to freeze the interpretation of values such as liberalism, academic freedom, or even free expression, and new ways of thinking deserve to be understood and considered, rather than dismissed.”
In other words, no longer is free speech fundamental — as “cohorts” of the past, such as the Founding Fathers held — but is merely a value, liable to change over time.
The problem with this approach is obvious; when free expression is merely one value among many, to be weighed and balanced, the more fashionable values will often take precedence.
Let’s take the obvious example — the heckler’s veto. That’s when a speaker is either shouted down by unruly audience members, or disinvited from speaking by the host university.
Some on the left now say that’s not an abridgement of free speech — it’s free speech in and of itself.
“At times protests and forms of expression are treated as if they are incursions on free speech when in fact they are manifestations of free speech,” PEN America’s Principles say.
It’s not just PEN America. The ACLU of Virginia recent backed down when its own speaker was subjected to a heckler’s veto from a local Black Lives Matter group. BLM members stormed a stage at the College of William and Mary, and prevented Claire Gastañaga from speaking. The ACLU of Virginia initially posted a sharp rebuke of the disruption, but within a few hours it softened the language, deleting a passage that said, “Disruption that prevents a speaker from speaking, and audience members from hearing the speaker, is not constitutionally protected speech even on a public college campus subject to the First Amendment…”
The implication is clear; some speech is more free than others.
What students are learning from all of this is an important — and dangerous — lesson: That justice is strength, that right is volume, and freedom is silence.
But the health of any democracy depends on justice, right and freedom — properly defined. Colleges and universities should be teaching students to subordinate their passion to reason, to listen to ideas they might find uncomfortable, and to engage with the society they live in — not beat it into their own image.
Political winds change, and disagreement will always be with us. Every new generation will have a new take on the big questions of the day.
But freedom is fundamental. It’s what allows us to consider those questions, rationally, peacefully and constructively.
President Trump’s order merely reinforces this principle. Colleges and universities should welcome it as a reaffirmation of their core mission.