The First Amendment has dodged another blow at the University of Wisconsin. As we mentioned last week, the university launched a “review” of instructor Kevin Barrett after Barrett publicly stated his belief that the United States plotted the 9/11 attacks. This week, however, the university changed course and dropped its investigation, clearing the way for Barrett to teach this fall. UW-Madison Provost Patrick Farrell issued a statement in which he said that “We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas…Instead of restricting politically unpopular speech, we will take our cue from the bronze plaque in front of Bascom Hall that calls for the ‘continual and fearless sifting and winnowing’ of ideas." Farrell also noted that students are capable of making their own decisions about controversial issues: “Our students are not blank slates. They are capable of exercising good judgment, critical analysis and speaking their minds.” (We wish UW had realized this last summer, when they banned RAs from leading Bible studies in their dorm rooms on the grounds that non-religious students might not find explicitly religious RAs “approachable.” But hey, better late than never.)
The First Amendment exists precisely to protect highly controversial speech. The Supreme Court has said that free speech “may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.” Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949). Kudos to UW for standing up for the First Amendment in the face of tremendous public pressure. As noxious as Barrett’s views may be to most of us, he is entitled to express them without fear of government sanction (make no mistake about it, being fired from a government job for publicly expressing a controversial viewpoint is indeed government sanction). Let us never sacrifice the freedoms that define us as a nation simply to avoid confronting hurtful or offensive ideas.