Transcript, Alan Charles Kors Recalls a Career Fighting for Free Expression on Campus


Alan Kors:
You cannot say to people, you’re too weak to live with freedom.  Only that group is strong enough to live with freedom.  I’m Alan Charles Kors. I’m a professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania where I’ve been since 1968. I teach 17th and 18th century history of European thought.


Liberty is a passion and that has gotten me into the fight against political correctness.  I grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, before it was gentrified.  I won a scholarship to Princeton about which I knew nothing.  I believe Princeton was where I met the first white Protestant.  The discovery that a large part of the country fell into that category came as a total surprise to me.


I was deeply struck by my first reading of John Stuart Mill’s Liberty and became passionately interested in issues of liberty.  I was appalled when during my junior year at Princeton; two gay Marxist undergraduates had their rooms vandalized.  Their applications to graduate school destroyed, ink poured over all their possessions, their little Lenin libraries ripped up.


It was discovered that the perpetrators were big men on campus.  They got off with a slap on the wrist.  I vowed to myself that I would do whatever I could wherever I could for the rights of students and the rights of people to be who they were and speak their minds.


The people who taught me at Princeton 1960-1964 were probably disproportionately individuals of the left, but none of that was obvious from their curriculum, from their syllabi, or from their teaching.  They did not see their task as producing disciples and clones in a classroom.


In my sophomore year at Princeton, I took a course from a distinguished Marxist professor on 20th century European History.  He gave us a remarkably diverse set of readings.  One or two of which were things he himself had written.  When he gave back the midterms, he stood before the class and he said you have shamed me.


You’ve all written what you thought I wanted to hear.  So I’m changing the final exam.  I’m going to make one quarter of it on the work I most disagree with about the 20th century.  I’m not going to ask you to critique that work.  I’m going to ask you to recreate its arguments with intellectual empathy, so that I can be certain that you know views that are antithetical to my own.


The book was Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.  It changed my own intellectual and moral life.  I cannot imagine my colleagues doing the same things in American academic life today.


I cofounded Van Pelt College House which was the first educational residence at Penn at a time when Penn was probably 3 percent black.  Van Pelt College House after its first year, the next eight that I lived in it was never less than 20 percent black because it had a reputation as a place where you could just be an individual and not be a representative of a group.


We had the first wave of the Gay Liberation Movement living with Campus Crusade for Christ.  We had Maoist revolutionaries.  We had New Age leftists.  We had Campus Republicans and we had Socialist would be revolutionaries living together.  They argued with and defended each other all the time, but freedom is an extraordinary medium.


Over time, they learned to talk to each other, understand each other, to humanize their relationships with each other and even occasionally to change each other’s minds.  What a terrible price students are paying now for the idea of comfort.


For a long time on many campuses, it was believed that if you get historically underrepresented groups on campus living together, indeed; if you get people living together with people just like themselves from that comfort they’ll find strength.  From that strength, they’ll integrate into enjoying the entire University community.  If I tried to bring Van Pelt College House back to campus today, the University would insist that those of us who had been intellectual and cultural and human resources resident faculty and resident graduate students now become part of the political correctness police.


Anyone drinking on campus, anyone smoking in that dormitory, anyone offending anyone else in that dormitory, and anyone who cared about a free University would flee the place.  So it should be one of the real goals of the University to bring diverse people together.  To have them meet each other and learn to talk to each other.  Find out about each other.  All of that dissipated as Universities followed this theory that comfort is the sine qua non of education.  It is not.


It is a treating of young adults as helpless infants unable to chart their own way in a world that isn’t always neat and comfortable.  The problem of free speech in both society and general and on campus in particular is everyone will say I believe in free speech, but.


The problem is everyone has a different but exemption that they would put on free speech.  So the issue really becomes who has the power to enforce their exemptions to free speech while keeping absolute free speech for themselves.  There is no exemption for hate speech.


There are rightfully protections against harassment, but if a student followed me around campus all day and stood outside of my office saying you’re wonderful!  I love you!  You’re wonderful!  You’re brilliant!  You’re right!  That’s harassment.  That’s harassment.  If a student who disagrees with me politically says to me Kors, you’re a Fascist.  That’s hateful.


 I cannot imagine anything more hateful, but that student has a right to hold that view of me.  Note well that these harassment codes were never applied as written because if they were, they would not exist for a nanosecond.  The first time that a feminist professor, for example, were sent to sensitivity training or giving a warning for having offended the males in her class, the first time that a radical professor were sent to Christian sensitivity training because his views had offended the views of Christian students in his class, the cry would be academic freedom.


The cry would be you’re not educated unless you’ve been offended in your beliefs.  So these speech codes and these harassment codes depend absolutely for their enforcement upon a double standard.


If they were applied equally across the board, they would not last a second.  Note very well the signal that sends to women, to blacks, and gays on a campus.


Groups which really have struggled to be brought into the circle with the American promise of legal equality.  What it says to these groups is we believe that you are too weak to live with freedom.  You’re too weak to live with freedom of speech.  You’re too weak to live with bearing witness in your speech and in your protests against things that you find offensive.


When Serrano’s “Piss Christ” came to the University of Pennsylvania, I was contacted by the Catholic students and the Catholic Newman Center, Christian Evangelical groups.  One look at me will show you that I’m neither a member of nor group.  They said this has to have an end put to it.  How dare they do this?  Look at they’re speech codes.  I said, don’t you dare ask for censorship.


Indeed, the correct answer to speech you abhor is bearing witness to what you believe.  They held the largest religious demonstration ever held on campus on the theme of that’s what the cross means to Penn.  This is what the cross means to us.  People found each other.  They found their voice.  They bore witness to their beliefs.  In short, they were adult members of a free society.


People often ask me, why should one defend speech that one disagrees with let alone speech that one finds personally abhorrent?  There’s a wonderful moment in one of the great plays of the 20th century.


Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons in which the Thomas Moore he envisions is confronting a perspective son-in-la who wants Moore to go after heretics at whatever cost it would be.  Moore says to him,

Moore: “What would do, cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?”

Other speaker: “Yes! I’d cut down every law in England to do that.”

Moore: “Oh?  And when the last law was down and the devil turned around on you, where would you hide with all the laws all being flat?  This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast.  Man’s laws, not God’s laws and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the devil the benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.”


That is absolutely true.  We do not provide jury trials only for people we find decent.  We do not permit society to string up people we find abhorrent without due process of law.  Not because we sympathize with this or that defendant or we sympathize with this or that speaker, but because due process of law is an evolved way of living in a civilized fashion that protects the freedom of all.


 Defending freedom of speech is defending the freedom to speak out in a way that defends the free speech of all.  Perhaps, someone else’s today, but yours tomorrow.  We are either all equally free or we are not free.


What I love about the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, FIRE.  What fire bears witness to are the principles of American liberty; freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, and fundamental fairness, and freedom of conscious.


Wherever those values come under assault, fire is there to represent the victims of that assault.  At the very top of its board of directors to its highest officers to its staff, FIRE has always had people who are left of center, people who are right of center.


The ability to produce that kind of coalition had made FIRE a force that can with sincerity stand against the full assault of political correctness from the perspective of the principles and values that underlie notions of dignity, liberty, and fairness in American society.


What gives me grounds for optimism is that this is the only country on the face of the earth where if you tell a ten year old kid you can’t do something and it strikes him as absurd, a ten year old kid looks up and says, “it’s a free country.”  This is the only nation on earth whose children say, “it’s a free country.”  It’s going to take a whole lot to root that out of the American spirit.



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Duration: 16 minutes