A day of reckoning for the left on free speech on campus

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The free-speech-on-campus wars of the 21st century are causing those on both sides of the political divide to do some soul-searching about the meaning of free expression. As this blog has thoroughly covered, there is movement afoot to protect faculty and students on the right and left of ideological debates through state legislation.

Yet recent news suggests progressive groups are willing to sacrifice free speech protections if it furthers a partisan mission.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the American Civil Liberties Union has secretly drafted new guidelines on free speech that say the group may decline to defend those whose free speech rights have been challenged if “the speech may assist in advancing the goals of…others whose views are contrary to our values.”

This is unfortunate because  the ACLU has long developed a reputation for surprising those on the right and left with its choices of whom to defend in free speech-related cases. The group has defended the KKK’s free speech rights and even Nazis’ rights to the same over the years. Writing for the group’s blog, ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said last year, “We simply never want government to be in a position to favor or disfavor particular viewpoints.”

As groups and institutions grapple with defending free speech, they should consider the ACLU’s apparent move and the legacy it would damage. Protecting free speech is important no matter your viewpoint because, as history reminds us, power players are always ready to take the stage and silence you. If all that unites the marginalized is a record of defending the right to be heard, that should be enough for groups with otherwise competing ideas to challenge tyranny.

The ACLU lesson is immediately applicable because the Seattle Times recently wrote that Evergreen State College is also doing some self-assessment. The progressive school is infamous for the shout-down of a professor that led to protests and eventually closed campus and delayed graduation.

Enrollment is down 20 percent over the last year, and every other state college except one is experiencing increases. Observers and school officials are debating whether the decline is due to the “demonstrations, our changing national politics or incessant media coverage,” but regardless, the Times says, “Evergreen needs to reinvent itself to survive.”

Recent events have led progressives to a fork in the road along with conservatives when it comes to free speech. The ACLU and Evergreen should choose to lead efforts to protect free expression—and be examples for everyone on the issue—or risk free speech becoming even more endangered than it is already.

One Evergreen faculty member told the Times, “A ‘rigorous’ education means that students are exposed to a multitude of opinions and perspectives, and if a student has a minority opinion, they shouldn’t be told to shut up and labeled as a bigot.” Well said.

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