Recently, former ACLU president and current NYU law professor Nadine Strossen was hosted by the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Statesmanship, Law and Liberty. In her astute and provocative address titled, “Hostile Environment Policies for Free Speech,” Strossen asked large questions about the current state of fee speech on academic campuses. “Just one minute of showing the wrong YouTube video in class can ruin a professor’s career,” she said.
To summarize her positions, Stroessen sees a full frontal assault on personal expression at institutions of higher learning. She sees an epidemic of disinviting speakers because some community members find them offensive. She sees a close-minded, cowardly and bigoted landscape devoid of public debate. Instead of learning how to think for themselves, and to be confronted by opinions and views that are not familiar or agreeable, she argues that students are shielded from any idea that upsets them or makes them uncomfortable. Sarcasm has been criminalized. Satire is intolerable. Independent thought is banned.
It is interesting to note that Strossen comes by her civil libertarianism naturally. In an interview she said: “My father was a Holocaust survivor, and my mother’s father was a protestor during World War I when he came to this country as an immigrant, and was literally spat upon for not going to fight in the war. His official sentence for being a conscientious objector was to be forced to stand against the courthouse in Hudson County, New Jersey, so that passers-by could spit on him.”
Stossen has been figuratively spat on her entire career. When she contends that too much free speech has been censored, there is someone in the audience who has been the victim of hate speech and wants retribution. When she says that explicit consent in sexual relationships is too narrow a concept of consent, there is a young woman or man in the rows who had been raped or sexually assaulted. And when she says that to be bombarded by viewpoints is not bad, for that is the purpose of college, inevitably there will be someone in the student body who has felt violated by the spoken and written expression of someone else’s ideas. Strossen does not hold these views because they are popular or safe. She holds them because they are quintessentially American, and to let go of them means the collapse of the First Amendment.
As she explained in her lecture, there was once a time when we burned women as witches because we did not understand their form of expression. With the slow and steady evolution of due process and individual freedom, we have reached a point where the unknown does not need to be suppressed or persecuted. With the advance of reason and science, we can now overcome our fears through curiosity, investigation, communication and mutual understanding. But these virtues of inquiry and learning can be developed and mastered only if they are allowed to be confronted by opposing viewpoints.
George Cassidy Payne is a visiting adjunct professor of humanities at Finger Lakes Community College and founder of Gandhi Earth Keepers International.