Speaking the Truth

Heed the words of Frederick Douglass. Moral outcomes depend on open discussion.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) is an abolitionist memoir whose power still resonates. So too should his remarks on free expression.

To defend free speech on college campuses, faculty members from across the United States have joined in a new non-partisan organization, Academic Freedom Alliance, with participants ranging from Cornel West to Niall Ferguson, and including the Persuasion founder, Yascha Mounk. To mark the initiative, we are proud to publish the following essay from another founding member, Lucas E. Morel.—The Editors

Frederick Douglass, who escaped enslavement and became one of the most famous abolition orators in American history, made his living from speeches. But few know of his principled defense of free speech itself. Given the hostility to open expression on campuses today, American colleges and universities could benefit from learning why Douglass saw free speech as “the great moral renovator of society and government.”

Douglass’s concern for the right to speak was no abstract consideration. He and other abolitionists routinely faced ruffians, even in New England, who tried to shut down their rallies. Below the Mason-Dixon line, slave states employed despotic measures to silence opposition. “Slavery cannot tolerate free speech,” he declared in 1860. “They will have none of it there, for they have the power.” They censored the mail of abolition publications, mobbed speakers who argued for emancipation, and prohibited slaves from learning to read.

Douglass would be shocked to find that American colleges, which should be promoting knowledge through robust protection for diversity of thought, instead allowing the harassment and de-platforming of invited speakers. He pointed out that slave societies required “violations of free speech,” but was confident that “truth must triumph under a system of free discussion.” Douglass affirmed Thomas Jefferson’s confidence “that error might be left free, so long as truth was free to combat it.”

What better place to provide a diversity of opinions regarding the most important matters of human existence, both material and spiritual, than a college campus?

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Unfortunately, the trend among American colleges is to tell students what to think, especially during first-year “orientation,” rather than to equip them to discuss important topics from a range of perspectives. Why prevent the “free discussion” that Douglass argued was essential to the triumph of truth—what he called “the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker”? Describing a free mind as the “the dread of tyrants,” Douglass observed, “It is the right which they first of all strike down.”

Administrators act tyrannically when they refuse to protect freedom of expression of faculty for the sake of ideological purity. In doing so, they undermine their primary reason for being—namely, the pursuit of knowledge. Discovering the truth about human beings and their world requires the promotion of a diversity of thought, modeled by faculty and instilled in students.

A university should create a space and provide activities that invite students to think through their opinions. That means they should read and discuss academic subjects in conversation with fellow students and their professors. This requires the utmost commitment to free speech, which in the end is a commitment to freedom of thought. It is the highest respect colleges can pay their students because it appeals to the highest element of their soul: their reason. As Douglass put it, “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.”

My own experience as a guest speaker at Middlebury College last semester indicates that some students and even faculty believe the way to combat opinions is not to refute them but to silence them—to deny Douglass’s “rights of the hearer” in hopes of keeping their campuses ideologically pure. Last October, I participated in a Zoom debate called “1619 or 1776: Was America Founded on Slavery?”, an event inspired by the New York Times project that reconsidered the nation’s founding according to the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in 1619 rather than the Declaration of Independence. Weeks before the Zoom event, more than 600 students signed a petition demanding that the president cancel it. They actually said that the role of slavery during the American Revolution “should not be up for debate”!

This attempt failed, but the climate on college campuses remains fraught with uncertainty as faculty continue to self-censor for fear of being “cancelled” and losing their jobs.

Douglass never went to college. But his exercise and defense of free speech exemplifies what should be the aim of every American college and university. In this spirit, I have joined faculty from various universities to form the Academic Freedom Alliance—a national organization consisting of nearly 200 founding members from across the ideological spectrum. We intend to remind universities—by moral suasion and where necessary by legal action—that to fulfill their truth-seeking mission they must strictly honor and protect the freedom of speech of all members of the campus community.

Let us declare with Frederick Douglass, “There can be no right of speech where any man…is overawed by force and compelled to suppress their honest sentiments.”

Lucas E. Morel is a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University, and author of Lincoln and the American Founding.

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