Free Speech

A bipartisan group of 74 Congressman urged Harvard, MIT and UPenn to dismiss their respective presidents a few days after their Congressional testimony on campus antisemitism. Representatives  Elise Stefanik (R., NY) and Jared Moskowitz (D., Fla) actually co-authored a letter in which they “demanded”  that the boards of the three schools immediately remove Harvard president Claudine Gay, MIT president Sally Kornbluth and UPenn president Liz Magill. In so doing Congress once again provided us with an example of why we should be skeptical of (1) bipartisanship, (2) consensus and (3) government power.

Let’s stipulate from the outset that the nation’s elite universities are, not for the first time, caught up in an academic fad and that they suffer from a leadership problem.  That however is not a problem that should be addressed by Congress. Let us also note that, unbeknownst to the public at large, universities are run by the faculty not by the “management”.  This suggests that changing a university president will have little effect. It also suggests a simple solution to the problem: don’t attend a university whose management is repellant. Unless that is, the purpose of attending a particular university is simply to acquire credentials rather than an education. In which case all the wailing and gnashing of teeth is mere virtue signaling. 

More importantly, the testimony provided by the now infamous university presidents was, on the surface, largely correct. However, the underlying message was drenched in hypocrisy. In their testimony the three university presidents pretended to be defenders of free speech. But actions speak louder than words. University administrations have routinely engaged in silencing dissents from orthodoxy. And they have created the machinery for doing so with the establishment of DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) bureaucracies. 

All of this suggests that university administrations should defend free speech for real instead of throttling challenges to orthodoxy while  masquerading as free speech advocates.  And in the wake of the resignation of UPenn’s Liz Magill, “conservatives” ought not celebrate the collection of another scalp. In doing so they are guilty of the same free speech violation that they loudly complain about when they are on the receiving end. 

Finally, there is a far more important issue at stake here than an academic or political career. It is the bipartisan trampling of the first amendment. The relevant section reads “Congress shall pass no law…abridging the freedom of speech…” Let me acknowledge that Congress did not pass a “law” requiring that certain university presidents be terminated. That doesn’t matter. Congress provides huge amounts of funding for U.S. universities and consequently has considerable leverage over them. Already at least one Congressional committee has announced it will investigate the “learning environments at Harvard, UPenn and MIT”. 

In general, Congress is supposed to hold hearings, investigations etc that have a legislative purpose. If Congress, in its wisdom, is going to begin legislating on the learning environments at schools, it is awfully hard to square that with the first amendment. In fact it is awfully hard to square the letter writing campaign of Elise Stefanik (chair of the House Republican Conference) and Jared Moskowitz with the spirit of the first amendment.  

It should be noted that upon the resignation of UPenn’s Magill, Stefanik went into celebratory mode and posted her thoughts, such as they are, on X. Consider what she wrote in full. 

“One down. Two to go,” Stefanik posted to X Saturday. “This is only the very beginning of addressing the pervasive rot of antisemitism that has destroyed the most “prestigious” higher education institutions in America. This forced resignation of the president of @Penn is the bare minimum of what is required. These universities can anticipate a robust and comprehensive Congressional investigation of all facets of their institutions negligent perpetration of antisemitism including administrative, faculty, funding, and overall leadership and governance.” 

“@Harvard and @MIT do the right thing. The world is watching,” she added.

So make no mistake, Stefanik and presumably other Congressmen, intend to shape the speech of university presidents to their liking. That is specifically prohibited by the first amendment, which was adopted in part to protect the natural law rights of people from the likes of Elise Stefanik. 

It is well worth noting the articulation of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis of the case for free speech when he wrote a concurrence in Whitney v. California (1927). He said in part “If there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Actually the whole opinion in Whitney should be read. It can be found here


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