Politics & Policy

Princeton’s Constitution Day Lecture Titled ‘F%*# Free Speech’

Prof. Carolyn Rouse speaks at a 2015 panel (Image: Princeton University/YouTube)
Should we ‘rethink’ academic freedom and free speech?

This year’s annual Constitution Day lecture at Princeton University was titled “F%*# Free Speech: An Anthropologist’s Take on Campus Speech Debates” and maintained that “the academy has never promoted free speech as a central value.”

According to an article in Campus Reform, the lecture was given by the chairwoman of the Department of Anthropology and director of the Program in African Studies, Carolyn Rouse.

In the lecture, Rouse stated that we should “rethink academic freedom and academic values” and that “the way in which free speech is being celebrated in the media makes little to no sense anthropologically.”

“Put simply, speech is costly,” Rouse said. “So, contrary to the ACLU’s statement on their website regarding the role of free speech on college campuses, the academy has never promoted free speech as its central value.”

Rouse might want to rethink this. After all, in the wake of the election, Rouse has been seeking submissions for her “Trumplandia” project — “a virtual space for documenting the impact of Trump’s presidency on the world” — something she says was inspired by her belief that “the changes promised by the president-elect to ‘make America great again’ were authoritarian and racist.”

The irony is as rich (and sickening) as a mayonnaise-covered chocolate truffle: This professor actually has the nerve to knock those who value free speech on campus, while using her position as a campus leader to spearhead a project that openly calls the president “racist” — an obvious example of the kind of speech that some might want to censor.

To be fair, it doesn’t seem that Rouse actually went so far as to say that there was anything wrong with the First Amendment in itself. Rather, according to Campus Reform, she seemed to define “free-speech absolutism” as the idea that all opinions should be considered equally, without, as Campus Reform puts it, “reference to any peer review process or any system of credentials,” e.g., a skeptic without any experience in climatology being free to call climate change a hoax. Rouse also argued that academia is a “semi-autonomous social field,” and that all “semi-autonomous social fields” have the right to make their own rules for themselves.

Now, Rouse is right to say that all kinds of institutions have all kinds of rules. Where she’s wrong, however, is the insinuation that the best way to counter incorrect or uninformed speech is to limit it. This is especially wrong when we’re talking about academia, seeing as the entire purpose of something such as classroom discussion is to learn and grow from a free exchange of ideas. Someone is out there spreading falsities? Well, then counter it with truth. That is, after all, how the real world works. Rouse suggests that it doesn’t — that “free-speech absolutism doesn’t exist,” because everyone tailors his or her own speech to fit within the bounds of socially acceptable standards — but anyone who has ever seen Twitter or a comments section could easily tell you that that’s simply not true.

The entire purpose of something such as classroom discussion is to learn and grow from a free exchange of ideas.

What’s most disheartening about all of this is that Rouse seems to have absolutely no understanding of what “free speech” even means. She wastes time making argument after argument that complete free speech “with respect to the goal of allowing people to say whatever they want, in any context, with no social, economic, legal, or political repercussions” is “asymptotic,” when really, no one who understands this issue would ever even claim that that’s the goal. Valuing the concept of “free speech” does not mean that you want people to be able to say whatever they want “with no social, economic, legal, or political repercussions,” because you know that “free speech” itself would make that impossible.

Think about it: If you understand that you have a right to free speech because you are a member of a free society, then you also understand that the whole “free society” thing means that all other members have the same right, too — and of course you couldn’t expect to be free from the “social” consequences that might come from people being free to disagree with you.


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