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Reflecting on the ‘struggle for free speech on campus’

The free speech wars on modern college campuses may seem, to some, to be an abrupt development. But the signs of an impending ideological battle have actually been evident for several decades—and some liberty-minded individuals recognized what was coming long before others.

Speaking at his Harvard Law School 50th reunion last month, Harvey Silverglate, a co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the current chairman of FIRE’s board of directors, bemoaned the modern campus’s obsession with “producing students all of whom look different, but who think alike.”

Silverglate says he first saw these campus tendencies forming “in the mid-1980s, when I noticed that college and university administrators, including at Harvard College and at our Law School, took a seemingly abrupt turn away from intellectual and pedagogical endeavors, and toward institutions more interested in ‘training’ rather than truly educating its students.”

Silverglate would later speak out in The Wall Street Journal against “the Harvard Law faculty, and then-Dean Robert Clark, for the faculty’s enactment of ‘sexual harassment guidelines’ that seriously impacted on free speech and academic freedom at our law school.”

“Harvard and all of its constituent schools to this day maintain speech-restrictive codes that interfere with academic freedom,” Silverglate asserts.

From the speech:

With the publication of “The Shadow University,” I began to get overwhelmed with frantic requests from students and faculty members who were being prosecuted — or more accurately, persecuted — for some verbal offense that a few years earlier would have been deemed protected speech or at least no big deal. Unable to handle the volume of cases, my co-author and I started, in 1999, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to help the beleaguered victims of campus administrative overreach.

In all my years of work in this area, one key lesson stands out.

If you have a cause, you need to enlist the energy and intelligence of the younger generations in order to see it through. No man, or woman, is an island. None of us can do it alone.

If our colleges and graduate and professional schools ever return to their mission to educate rather than train, and to promote freedom over forced conformity, the primary reasons for such a victory would involve not the 75-year-old Harvey Silverglates and the Class of 1967, but the 20-somethings in school, and the 30-somethings in organizations such as FIRE.

It is these folks who devote themselves to keeping the torch of learning and teaching burning despite the efforts of academic bureaucrats to extinguish them in the name of some cause vaguely described with essentially meaningless and tendentious terms such as “diversity and inclusion.”

“I remain an unrepentant political liberal,” Silverglate says, “and [an] unabashed civil libertarian who is thankful for a life-long opportunity to fight for the people, institutions and causes that remain near and dear to my heart.”

“This struggle,” he goes on, “…will be carried forward by those of us with the strength and wherewithal to fight, and especially by the generations that come after us that we have had a hand in educating and inspiring.”

Read the excerpt from the speech here.

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