Lecturer discusses free speech on college campuses

Zach Clemens

David French had strong words against censorship on college campuses in his guest lecture at the Memorial Union on Tuesday night.

French is a constitutional lawyer who graduated from Harvard Law School and is a staff writer for the National Review. He is a veteran who served in Iraq in 2007, where he was awarded the Bronze Star, and has co-authored a number of books, including the most recently “Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore.”

His lecture, “Censorship and the New Puritans on Campus,” started with his story of growing up in a small Kentucky town and being the first from his university to be accepted into Harvard Law School. He said it was there that he realized “not everyone was so in love with free speech.”

College campuses should be a place where students should be able to sharpen their critical thinking skills and correct errors in their judgment or strengthen that judgment, French said. The problem today is that free speech is a means to an end as an instrument of the powerful and not a tool of free-thinking students.

Universities enacted speech codes decades ago to rein in free speech, he said.

“Universities will twist themselves into intellectual knots to justify limiting free speech,” French said.

He cited a case he took to court about a university that had a policy that stated that acts of intolerance would not be tolerated. He argued in court that an act of intolerance is undefinable.

“The truth is speech that is offensive has no value, but what is offensive speech?” he said. “Offensive speech tends to be defined by those who run the university.”

French highlighted the events at the University of Missouri, where there had been racial incidents, including a swastika written on a dorm wall with feces. Protesters, including members of the football team, called for the president to step down.

Once the protesters got their demands, according to French, they told reporters that they could not be on campus.

“They immediately tried to limit the free speech of others,” he said. “It was ‘free speech for me but not for thee.'”

He said the alternative is to start treating students like adults. To be a productive adult, people have to be able to have an open discussion and be able to hear things that might upset them, but they have to become better through that.

“The absence of liberty is not the triumph of a certain mindset; it is the loss of unity and will ultimately lead to division. Free speech is a fundamental value that preserves the Union, and we need to remember that,” French said.