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Too Far for Free Speech?

Last week, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) released the first installment of what will be a new quarterly National Speech Index in conjunction with the Polarization Research Lab at Dartmouth. In its new survey, FIRE found that 69% of Americans believe our nation is on the wrong track when it comes to “people being able to freely express their views.” Not surprisingly, this aligns roughly with RealClearPolitics’ polling on national right direction / wrong track polling — the current RCP average has 66.4% of Americans believing our nation is on the wrong track in general.


In politics, large and enduring majorities of Americans have long thought our nation is on the wrong track. What’s new is that there’s polling specifically about free speech as a component to the overall direction of our country. But then there’s an additional question that FIRE asked those surveyed: Does the First Amendment go too far? Here’s how FIRE put it in its press release:


One alarmingly common belief that crosses partisan lines is that idea that the First

Amendment "goes too far in the rights it guarantees." Around a third of

Republicans and a third of Democrats "completely" or "mostly" agree with that

statement.


I’m assuming that since this question was written by FIRE, that by “First Amendment” they mean freedom of speech — rather than the freedom of the press, assembly, and right to petition. If so, that raises a question in my mind: if you think we are on the wrong track in terms of free speech, is it because you think we have too much free speech, or not enough? FIRE doesn’t differentiate. There could be people on both sides within that 69 percent.


Your definition of what the “wrong track" is when it comes to free speech might be very different from mine. My sense is that as a nation, we’ve been on the wrong track for a while now on many campuses in terms of free speech: reports of cancelled speakers, heckler’s vetoes, rules being enforced on some protestors but not others, onerous restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech, and political statements by university leaders that silence everyone else’s opinions are all too common.


But the pendulum is slowly moving in the “right” direction — at least here among the students and faculty at UVA. The UVA Statement on Free Expression and Free Inquiry has been endorsed by both the Board of Visitors and the Faculty Senate (although not by Student Council yet); a new committee on Institutional Statements has just been appointed by President Ryan; Think Again has been working to bring more student-facing events to Grounds that help create an atmosphere of free and open exchange of ideas and civil discourse, including our annual Oratory Contest and new events on Free Speech Fridays. Just this semester, students have founded several groups promoting free speech and viewpoint diversity. Faculty membership in the Heterodox Academy — which is dedicated to viewpoint diversity, open inquiry, and constructive disagreement in higher ed — has grown so quickly that we’re now the second largest chapter in the nation. We’re also busy planning the 60th anniversary of the free speech movement on college campuses next fall here on Grounds to commemorate the start of the movement at UC Berkeley in 1964. All good.


On the other hand, if you think the First Amendment goes too far, you might think that there are speakers who truly deserve to be cancelled; that a heckler’s veto is a good exercise of free speech in itself; that even if they’re all peaceful, some protests deserve to be shut down and others don’t; and that for the sake of racial progress, DEI statements should be required of all faculty.


What I see as shoots of hope — the number of faculty groups at many colleges standing up for viewpoint diversity and open inquiry, and the number of grassroots student groups partnering with national organizations like Braver Angels, Bridge USA, and the Student Free Speech Alliance to create town-hall style debates and civil discourse alliances — you may view as somehow dangerous or threatening to some marginalized groups. I’d bet you think those are examples of the First Amendment crossing the line, and that we need to pull back a bit.


I couldn’t disagree more. Especially in these polarized times, more open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and civil debate is not the First Amendment going too far. That’s the First Amendment in all its glory — sometimes comfortably and sometimes uncomfortably — being exercised and strengthened by the next generation. We need more, not less, free speech these days.

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