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As campus norms infect society, they threaten to render the First Amendment ‘meaningless’

First Amendment law is dependent on judges and lawyers to enforce it. What if the next generation of judges and lawyers simply decides it’s a relic that threatens the psychological and physical well-being of a delicate and easily offended people?

That’s a real possibility without a “broad cultural consensus” that upholds a “free speech culture,” according to a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education officials.

President Greg Lukianoff and Senior Research Counsel Adam Goldstein warn that “campus norms,” which gave us “cancel culture,” are infecting every facet of American society and threatening the culture that “gave us the First Amendment to begin with.”

Robust First Amendment law, formed over decades of legal precedents, faces an existential challenge from “norms in higher education” that graduates take with them into “newsrooms, corporate boardrooms—and sooner or later courtrooms,” they write:

Our organization was founded in 1999. Back then, if Princeton investigated a professor because he wrote an op-ed disagreeing with activist demands, or the public called on Auburn to fire a professor for expressing antipolice views online, or a conservative University of North Carolina-Wilmington professor was hounded to suicide for abrasive public statements, it would be a very bad semester. All this happened within two weeks last month, and the fall semester hasn’t even begun.

The idioms of an older (i.e., 40 and over) generation, such as “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” are now portrayed as harmful to women and minorities. “To each his own” is being replaced by a colonizing intolerance that declares bad opinions off-limits and bans cooperation with people who hold those views, they write.

If one had to choose, free speech culture would be better than free speech law, the op-ed argues, citing “one of the greatest philosophical periods in human history.” France in the 18th century produced “Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau and the Marquis de Condorcet,” all of whom either fled or were arrested for their speech: “The cultural norm of open discussion was so strong that they kept writing and challenging norms despite the legal risk.”

Americans should be concerned that their First Amendment will become as empty as the free-thought constitutional provisions in decidedly unfree countries, such as Russia, North Korea and Turkey. Not much better: becoming like Spain, Britain and France, where “people have been imprisoned for rap lyrics, social-media posts, and reading choices.”

Read the op-ed.

IMAGE: Mike Focus/Shutterstock

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