“The most serious problems of freedom of expression in the U.S. today exist on our campuses.”
Those words were uttered 24 years ago, in a speech delivered by ACUE co-founder Benno Schmidt, who at the time was serving as Yale University’s 20th president. The speech, a full-throated defense of freedom of expression, still resonates with many in higher education amid concerns that free speech has been curtailed on campus.
In a nod to the speech’s poignancy, the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt in its opinion pages today. In the May 6, 1991 speech, titled “Universities Must Defend Free Speech,” Dr. Schmidt says that “well-intentioned but misguided efforts to give values of community and harmony a higher place than freedom” were endangering core tenets of a free society:
Much expression that is free may deserve our contempt. We may well be moved to exercise our own freedom to counter it or to ignore it. But universities cannot censor or suppress speech, no matter how obnoxious in content, without violating their justification for existence. Liberal education presupposes that a liberated mind will strive for the courage and composure to face ideas that are fraught with evil, and to answer them. To stifle expression because it is obnoxious, erroneous, embarrassing, not instrumental to some political or ideological end is—quite apart from the invasion of the rights of others—a disastrous reflection on the idea of the university. It is to elevate fear over the capacity for a liberated and humane mind. . . .
Today, Dr. Schmidt remains a luminary in higher education. Since 1997, he has chaired the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY), America’s premier urban public university. Dr. Schmidt is also a founding member of ACUE’s Board of Advisors.