Few people are as closely associated with First Amendment law as attorney Floyd Abrams—and for good reason. Detailing Abrams’ experience and expertise in the Observer, writer Jeff Robbins’ recent article reminds readers just how much we owe to Abrams and his mind.
If you ask judges and lawyers to blurt the name that comes to mind when given the verbal prompt “First Amendment,” a fair percentage will reply “Floyd Abrams.” Since being asked by The New York Times to defend its right to publish the Pentagon Papers 45 years ago, the 80-year-old partner at the New York law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel has become, as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “the most significant First Amendment lawyer of our age.” He has been asked by ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Time Magazine, among others, to represent them in high stakes constitutional litigation, with clients as diverse as the Brooklyn Museum of Art, National Public Radio commentator Nina Totenberg, Al Franken and Senator Mitch McConnell.
Given Abrams’ extensive background in free speech, it is unsurprising to read about his dismay over the growing trend, by students and faculty on campus, to either force a college or university to rescind a disfavored speaker’s invitation or to prevent the speaker from actually speaking. According to Robbins:
Mr. Abrams declared that the greatest threat to American free speech presently comes not from government’s mega-sophisticated electronic surveillance techniques, but from within academia—principally from “a minority of students who strenuously and, I think it is fair to say, contemptuously, disapprove of the views of speakers whose view of the world is different from theirs, and who seek to prevent those views from being heard.”
Additionally, Robbins reports Abrams’ belief that those suppressing speech on college campuses are no longer just university administrators. Now, Robbins explains, Abrams believes “the ones trying to prevent students from hearing political and social viewpoints are other students.” FIRE CEO and President Greg Lukianoff has made similar points in his book Unlearning Liberty, and in his widely-read Atlantic article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which he co-authored with New York University professor and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. As Lukianoff puts it, today’s students too often seek freedom from speech.