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The case of (the now resigned) Professor John Daly at Warren County Community College in New Jersey brings up an interesting issue: Should FIRE defend those who advocate greater restrictions on free speech on campus, or who attack the “marketplace of ideas” principle upon which a liberal arts institution must operate? FIRE has received e-mails from individuals who point out that Professor Daly seems hostile to the free exchange of ideas on campus. They point to the fact that he told student Rebecca Beach that he would work to “expose [Beach’s] right-wing, anti-people politics until groups like [hers] won’t dare show their face on a college campus,” and that he also pledged to encourage students to boycott any events scheduled by Beach’s conservative group on campus. As one e-mail correspondent wrote, “Daly is not the victim here. He is clearly an enemy of free speech, and his message indicates that he’s willing to abuse ‘academic freedom’ to advance his own political agenda (he’s an English professor—what business does he have telling his students to boycott a political event?).... Set aside the offensiveness of his statement about soldiers killing their superiors. He is a state employee threatening to suppress free speech on a college campus. Isn’t this what FIRE is fighting against?”

Well, we certainly do fight against the idea that state employees may suppress speech on campus. Yet from what I have read, Daly was not threatening to use the apparatus of state power to silence an opposing viewpoint. He was merely expressing his own political convictions in a strong way, and did not appear to be making any physical threats against the student. In fact, what his e-mail (scroll to the bottom to read) actually “threatens” is that he will argue and agitate so successfully for his own political convictions that those who oppose him will be marginalized and embarrassed because so few will agree with them. Professors have the freedom to express their political opinions, and in this case, this was done in an e-mail from a personal e-mail account in response to an e-mailed invitation from Beach regarding an event discussing the war in Iraq. This was not an in-class tirade (although FIRE believes that professors should have some leeway in class as well, as free speech and academic freedom need some “breathing room” to survive), and coercion does not seem to have been a factor. All in all, we have seen nothing to indicate that this was not just another vehement political disagreement between politically minded adults in our society. Is it ideal for professors to address students this way? Probably not. But respect for the principle of free speech requires one to tolerate a lot of communication that is far from ideal.

Granted, Daly’s comments don’t really appear to be those of a friend of free inquiry. Yet a principled free speech advocate must be prepared to protect the speech of even those who believe that speech should be silenced and censorship widespread. There is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in arguing for the freedoms of those who would advocate taking away those very same freedoms. But the reason we believe in freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry is that we are confident that the many arguments for these principles are far more convincing than the arguments against them. Americans, when presented with both sides of the story, generally choose liberty over repression—and that is FIRE’s greatest ally in the fight to free our campuses from the repression that characterizes so many of them today.

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