Prominent civil libertarian to discuss free speech on College campus

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New York Law School Professor and Former American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) President Nadine Strossen will participate in an interview and panel discussion this Thursday at 7:30 PM on the role of speech on college campuses and the Ad Hoc Committee on Inquiry and Inclusion’s recently released report. 

Located in Goodrich Hall, the event will take place in two parts, starting with an interview with Strossen and followed by a panel discussion. Landon Marchant ’20 will conduct the interview and moderate the panel.  

Strossen and Marchant will be joined on the panel by Essence Perry ’22, Hamza Mankor ’22 and Chair and Professor of Philosophy Jana Sawicki.  

As a staunch civil libertarian, Strossen says that “free speech” is much more than a platitude for her.  

“I was raised on stories about horrible violations of human rights and civil liberties that was suffered by relatives on both sides of my family,” Strossen told the Record in an interview.  

On her mother’s side, Strossen’s grandfather was a conscientious objector during the First World War, a position that resulted in him being spit upon while standing outside a New Jersey Courthouse. Stossen’s father publically opposed the Nazi regime in Germany, and was later sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. The camp was later liberated by American forces, freeing Strossen’s father one day before he was set to be sterilized. 

Strossen attributes these family stories to having helped her develop a passion for free speech and expression. 

“I just had an instinctive sense that I should have the right to speak and other people should have the right to ask questions,” Strossen said. 

Strossen went on to work for the ACLU, serving as the organization’s president from 1991 to 2008. She was both the youngest and first woman president of the civil liberties organization. 

For Strossen, speech is the strongest method for rooting out hate. To develop a more equitable world, she argues, societies should encourage the proliferation of speech, not the restriction of it. 

“It might feel morally satisfying to try to silence [hateful speakers], to try to deplatform them, to disinvite them, to disrupt them,” she said, “But that is so counterproductive.” According to Strossen, efforts to shut down controversial speakers make those speakers into “free speech martyrs,” further amplifying their message. 

However, Strossen emphasized that it is incumbent upon colleges to ensure that community members are adequately made to feel like they belong at their institution. 

“Believe me, the university or college does have a moral responsibility to make sure that every single member of that campus community is welcome and included and respected and treated with dignity. And given constant reassurances that any hateful or discriminatory message is completely contrary to the values of the educational institutions,” she told the Record

At the event on Thursday, Strossen will be speaking alongside a group of panelists with broadly divergent views on the role speech and should play on campus. 

For Marchant, Strossen’s interviewer and the panel discussion moderator, free speech and free expression have played an operative role in their life. 

“I want to recognize that the phrase ‘free speech’ has been appropriated by certain groups and comes with baggage,” Marchant wrote to the Record [ital]. “Oftentimes it is the most vulnerable among us who are threatened by this particular usage. ‘Free speech’ is how my high school classmates defended their ‘Straight Pride Day.’ That event most certainly impacted the LGBTQ community at my small, rural, high school.”  

“At the same time, free speech and free expression mean that I am free to transition, to express my identity, to question authority, and challenge the status quo. Without freedom of speech, the word “transgender” would be blocked on Google. Without freedom of expression, I, and many other people, would not be alive today,” Marchant said. 

Perry, one of the student panelists, hopes that Thursday’s panel discussion will help recast the discourse surrounding free speech. 

“I feel like towards the end of last year, the discussion of free speech became so binary in a way that was honestly not productive,” Perry told the Record. “I really hope that this event can kind of put this discussion of free speech back into a new light, and cause us all to put away our biases about free speech and come together and look at the issue again.” 

Perry also worries that a culture of censorship will harm Williams students, particularly minority groups. 

“I think that marginalized communities and underrepresented communities have always used free speech to get their message out there even when every system was against them,” Perry said. “I worry that any type of censorship, anything, which stops communication from both sides … seems dangerous to me, and doesn’t seem like what we’re going to Williams for.” 

“I just encourage everyone to come even if they’ve lost faith in Hopkins Hall or if they feel like we shouldn’t even be talking about free speech, it should just be a guaranteed thing,” Perry concluded. “I recommend that people show up and listen, and then ask questions and keep this dialogue going in a meaningful way.”

Mankor, another student panelist, sees the event as an opportunity to redirect a debate that he characterizes as fraught with misrepresentations.

“I think my take on the issue in specific regard to college campuses is one a lot of people are quick to overlook because it causes discomfort,” Mankor said. “My position is not anti-free speech but I’m heavily critical of the lack of genuinely communicative discourse regarding the issue.”

Mankor hopes that his participation in the talk will spark an honest discourse about the intersection of speech and identity.

“I’m really hoping the panel and that my points in particular can inspire people to create raw self-inflicted intellectual discomfort instead of asking for a designed and dampened discomfort to avoid facing real issues about our school’s social construction,” Mankor said.

As the only faculty member on the panel, Sawicki hopes that students and community members learn from the discourse between Strossen and the other panelists.

“My hope would be for us to have a thoughtful, nuanced, discussion,” Sawicki told the Record

“This event is just one conversation of the many that need to happen as we navigate questions of free speech and inclusivity. Overwhelmingly, Williams students have shown themselves to be articulate, intelligent, thoughtful and kind. I have no doubt that Thursday’s event can be all those things, and more,” Marchant said.