At December fifth’s House Committee on Education and the Workforce, presidents of Harvard, Penn and M.I.T. answered questions about free speech matters at their universities. One should first question what our government was doing micro-managing private speech and assemblage at non-governmental institutions. Another dangerous issue was raised when a wealthy alumnus of Penn threatened to withdraw a one hundred-million-dollar donation if Penn did not fire its president who did not testify as the alumnus approved. President Elizabeth Magill and Penn bowed to the combined pressure of politics and money; she and the Chairman of Penn’s Board almost immediately resigned. The Black female president of Harvard, Dr. Claudine Gay, and the Jewish female president of M.I.T., Dr. Sally Kornbluth, have not, as yet, stepped down. Congress took umbrage at the three university presidents’ responses to a hypothetical question about possible antisemitism on their campuses. Each president stated free speech is vital on college campuses and all speech and protest must be judged within the context it is made. Congress was offended by the failure to unequivocally prohibit the hypothetical call for Jewish genocide without regard to the circumstances and context in which such hypothetical speech might be uttered.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution seeks to guarantee all the rights set forth in the Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Our Founders knew Free Speech is essential to preserving all of our rights. As former slave Frederick Douglass stated:
“Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.”
And to paraphrase my fellow columnist, Benjamin Franklin, who published Poor Richard’s Almanac, freedom of speech is the freedom that secures all the others. Of course, Franklin was concerned as an individual citizen, a working member of the press and an influential Founding Father.
Congresspersons who set themselves up as the arbiters of speech and assembly at private universities may see themselves as protecting students from hateful speech and protests. But it is the core mission of our colleges and universities to provide forums where differing views of important issues may be aired and debated. Students go on to be future presidents of other colleges or even of the United States. They will become members of the Supreme Court and Congress and will serve throughout our nation on school boards and in local, state and federal government. It is imperative that they learn to challenge the status quo and themselves. A good starting point is the First Amendment.