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Conor Friedersdorf for ‘The Atlantic’: Free Speech Advocates Not At Odds with Campus Protesters

By March 14, 2016

Since student protests spread across the country last fall, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has written extensively and thoughtfully about the role that free speech plays on college campuses. On Tuesday, his article, “Free-Speech Advocates Are Not Trying to Silence Students,” responded to a criticism levied by a participant in last week’s Intelligence Squared U.S. debate over free speech on campus. Echoing a point that has been made by others, University of Pennsylvania professor Shaun Harper argued during the debate that concerns over free speech amidst the recent campus protests are merely brought up as a distraction or diversion from what he sees as the real issue of the protests: the effort to fight racism.

Friedersdorf writes:

The falsehood is oft-repeated despite the fact that, across decades, many of the highest-profile opponents of campus speech restrictions, from the ACLU to Henry Louis Gates, have been energetic opponents of racism and outspoken defenders of minority rights. In November, when I defended my own work against the falsehood, I began noticing that it endures despite strong evidence that marginalized groups gain the most from norms that protect free expression and are harmed most grievously by limits on free speech, even when well-intentioned.

Friedersdorf’s belief is echoed by author and gay rights activist Jonathan Rauch, who told FIRE: “Free speech is not only minorities’ best friend. In some ways it’s our only reliable friend. If we can’t speak in a majority culture, if we lose our voice, it is so easy to oppress us.”

Friedersdorf goes on to add:

The falsehood is especially bogus when aimed at an organization like the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education. Since 1999, FIRE has been defending liberal values in scores of controversies having nothing to do with race or ethnicity. Was it all an elaborate ploy, 15 years in the making, to anticipate and distract from last autumn’s protests?

Friedersdorf’s point is worth elaborating on to remind people of the contours of our mission: FIRE is a nonpartisan free speech organization. It is our job to monitor and do our best to address free speech issues on campus. In our decade-and-a-half of existence, we have defended students and faculty members from across the political and ideological spectrum. FIRE has proudly worked to protect the free speech rights of Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Democratic Socialists, and those affiliated with no party at all; Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and atheists; environmental activists, animal rights activists, vegans, pro-choice activists, feminist activists, anti-war activists, and LGBT activists; free market advocates, pro-life activists, anti-immigration activists, traditional marriage advocates, and anti-affirmative action activists, among many, many others. We have done this because at one time or another, individuals and groups with all of these characteristics and/or beliefs have been censored on campus, and because it’s our job to defend their right to speak out, regardless of viewpoint.

When students began speaking out last fall, FIRE was happy to defend their right to do so. In fact, we worked to pass a law that helped cement the right to protest on Missouri campuses—ground zero of last fall’s movement. However, because it is our job to defend free speech rights on campus, we cannot and will not turn a blind eye when student protesters demand new speech codes or censorship, as some protesters have done. To do so simply because the protesters’ calls for censorship are part of a larger campaign against racism would be a dereliction of our duty. Ignoring calls for censorship is not in keeping with our strongly held belief that free speech is crucial to the protection of all students’ rights and our central mission to defend speech regardless of its content. In fact, we are so wedded to our mission that if the students calling for censorship were themselves censored for their views, we would come to their defense—even though we believe such demands are misguided. And, of course, we will continue to reach out to protesters or anyone else willing to listen to try to convince them that free speech is worth preserving, not limiting.

Defending free speech on campus is FIRE’s number one priority. To the extent it is threatened, we must be there to respond. That is no diversion: It’s protecting the fundamental rights that made the protests of this year possible.

Read Friedersdorf’s whole piece on The Atlantic’s website.