I’ve often spoken here about threats to free speech in the United States. Unfortunately, many of those threats come from administrators and students at our colleges and universities. Yale University, a well-respected Ivy League school, has had two recent attacks on free speech that bode ill for the future of our nation if they truly reflect the thinking of our professional educators at the university level and their students, and the lengths to which they are willing to go to clamp down on free speech and pressure others to comply with their viewpoints.
One of the more egregious examples of attacks on free speech happened at Yale on March 10 when a panel was organized by the Yale Federalist Society to discuss free speech. The premise of the panel was that an atheist progressive and a conservative Christian could find common ground on free speech protections. A member of the Federalist Society said, “It was pretty much the most innocuous thing you could talk about.”
The two speakers were Kristen Waggoner, a constitutional rights US Supreme Court litigator with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), and Monica Miller, an associate at the American Humanist Society (AHS). Protesters, apparently, couldn’t handle the idea of someone from the ADF appearing on campus. The ADF, which has won several cases before the Supreme Court of the US protecting religious freedom, has been labeled as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) because they oppose much of the LGBT political agenda, especially when it imposes on the religious freedom of citizens.
The two panelists were discussing Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, a case that went before the Supreme Court, where a public college in Georgia prevented a Christian student from sharing his faith on campus. After the student graduated, he sued the college and won. The ADF and the AHS were on the same side of this case, though it was the ADF that represented the plaintiff at the SCOTUS.
The protesters held up signs, their middle fingers, and shouted chants of “protect trans rights.” Before and after the protest, letters were written to faculty and to the AHS urging them not to participate, and an email campaign was initiated to pressure fellow students into expressing their opposition to the panel. One of those letters criticized the Yale Federalist Society for hosting the panel which, they claimed, “profoundly undermined our community’s values of equity and inclusivity.” Such irony: demanding equity and inclusion while protesting a panel discussing the value of free speech. Eventually, the situation became physical, and members of the Federalist Society were threatened with harm and manhandled by protesters. The police were called, and the speakers and faculty moderator were escorted out.
Judge Laurence Silberman of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals recommended to his colleagues that those Yale law students who protested the panel be barred from serving as clerks. It does seem contrary to the legal profession to insist that certain views not be allowed to be shared or spoken on a college campus educating future attorneys, and to oppose such views being shared with physical altercations and threats of violence.
Yale was at the center of another recent controversy regarding free speech when it punished a student for identifying his residence as a “trap house” in an invitation to other students to a party he was hosting. Yale Law School administrators devoted a weeks-long campaign to pressure the student to apologize. I don’t know what a “trap house” is, but it apparently offended somebody, and that was enough for Yale administrators to bare their claws.
Free speech is under attack in the US, as it has been for some time now in Europe. There are actually American academics arguing that China got it right with state censorship of “misinformation” about the coronavirus and of political views critical of the government’s handling of the epidemic. Some academics and politicians, notably Democrats, argue that the government should censor social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, etc., in order to “protect” the public from “fake news” and “misinformation.” Of course, in their minds, “misinformation” means anything that doesn’t support their view of the world.
On March 18, the New York Times published an op-ed entitled “America Has a Free Speech Problem.” The editors warned that Americans are, “are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.” The editorial board of the paper received considerable backlash, including demands that the entire board resign. Yet the editorial only described what many Americans feel has been a problem for some time now: that the ability to freely express your ideas about any subject is more limited now, if not by government than by social and cultural pressures. There are those in government who would like nothing more than to use the power of government to censor views with which they disagree under the guise of “false news” or “misinformation.”
Our republic will not last long as a republic if free speech protections are not defended and defended vigorously. It has often been said that the solution to bad speech is more speech, not less. The notion that government officials or cultural critics ought to be empowered to determine what speech is allowed and what must be shut out is anathema to the American experiment. It is precisely one of the behaviors of government against which our founders fought. When the US, under President John Adams, created the Alien and Sedition Acts, making it illegal for citizens to criticize their government, outrage over the attack on free speech contributed to Adams being ousted from office and the Acts overturned. Government officials and social/cultural movements don’t need protection against the opinions of free citizens. Critical debate is the fire by which bad laws and bad social/cultural conventions are reformulated into better ones, or rightly tossed altogether. It is a necessary ingredient to a free people remaining free.
The Church has a dog in this fight. Needless to say, the Church has faith and moral teachings that are not popular among many of the social/cultural elites and even among many in government. Those who regard Church teaching as an obstacle to the implementation of a radical moral agenda would be only too happy to kick the Church out of the public square and silence her voice on critical issues. That cannot be allowed to happen. The freedom to preach the gospel freely and in its entirety, especially when the gospel challenges the preferences and proclivities of secularist powerbrokers, is a vital ingredient to a free society and a levy against an immoral tide that would overwhelm the vulnerable, leaving many at the mercy of a merciless standard of thought and behavior. Christians ought to be engaged in the fight to protect speech, even speech directed against them. Only in tolerating the slings and arrows thrown at us will we be empowered to speak boldly in response with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.