FIRE Exclusive: Wendy Kaminer on the Causes of Campus Censorship

By on June 30, 2009

As Torch readers know, two weeks ago we concluded our second annual Campus Freedom Network conference. Over fifty students from around the country heard from a variety of free speech experts on what ails the contemporary university and what they can do to restore free speech to campus. Dozens more tuned in online via live stream. The conference was an inspiring success.

On the second night of the event, noted civil libertarian, author, and FIRE Board of Advisors member Wendy Kaminer gave a stirring and incisive speech on the historical context of campus repression, what its modern causes may be, and how to fight it.  She concludes:

In combating these efforts to restrict offensive speech or subject fundamental associational rights to discrimination policies, it’s important, I think to stand up for the moral right to think, speak and associate freely – especially when the majority considers the speech and associations at issue reprehensible. Advocates of free speech and association often speak as if the value of these rights is primarily instrumental: they oppose censoring what they might agree is "bad" speech because of the impossibility of fairly drawing lines between good speech and bad and because of the danger inherent in giving anyone the power to try. But they tend not to focus on the moral value of the rights being attacked. It’s not politic to point out that bigots have a moral right to indulge in what many of us might agree is hate speech, but they do; the saints and sinners among us have the same moral rights to individual autonomy, to the freedom of conscience that is at the heart of a free society.

So this battle asks a lot of us. It asks us to sympathize with the some of the concerns of those who want to regulate human nature – and the inevitable, occasional ugliness of human relations – while, at the same time standing up for the moral rights of the ugliest among us, the moral rights of everyone one to liberty.

Wendy delivered a terrific speech, and you can read it in its entirety here.