Brown President: States, not Students, are Threatening Speech on CampusBreaking News
tags: higher education, free speech, academic freedom
Ms. Paxson is the president of Brown University.
America is facing a fundamental threat, and it echoes a dark past.
In 1633, Galileo was forced to renounce the “false opinion” that the Earth circled the sun since it collided with the prevailing beliefs of the Catholic Church.
Shortly after publication in 1859, Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was banned from the library of Trinity College, Cambridge.
And in the early 1950s, during the McCarthy era, many university professors were subject to “loyalty hearings,” and some lost their positions because of defamation campaigns and indiscriminate allegations of Communist leanings.
Each of these episodes of censorship and repression of knowledge reflected the unique social and political tensions of its time. But the proponents of censorship and repression all had one thing in common: they were on the wrong side of history.
The mistakes of the past are being repeated in this country, right now. The State Senate in Texas last week advanced one of three bills aimed at public colleges that would ban diversity, equity and inclusion activities, end tenure, and fire professors accused of indoctrinating their students. Several states, including Georgia, Idaho and most notably Florida, have passed varying laws making it easier to ban books and limit what American educators can teach.
Dozens of other bills are pending in state legislatures around the country with the promise of affecting what tens of millions of students will or won’t be allowed to learn, and exerting a chilling effect on educators who fear for their jobs. The recent actions take aim at teaching about so-called “divisive concepts,” including the history of slavery in America and its legacy in modern times, structural racism, evolving concepts of gender identity, sexuality and L.G.B.T.Q. issues, and anything to do with diversity, however defined. They are just as dangerous and misguided as attempts to outlaw the teaching of evolution, or Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of people for their political beliefs.
Like their forebears, the proponents of these laws are on the wrong side of history. They are acting out of political expediency, exploiting convenient political wedge issues. They are mounting a direct and dangerous attack on America’s longstanding commitment to free expression, democracy and education. Legislating toward a future where the state decrees what ideas may be taught and debated upends a bedrock principle of this country.
I am the president of a private, nonprofit university in Rhode Island, a state founded on the values of freedom and tolerance. Brown University is not immediately threatened by new or pending laws affecting public education in Arizona, Florida, Texas, or the numerous other states where similar legislation has been introduced. I am free to speak against what’s happening, but the educational leaders in the states in question, particularly those at the helm of public institutions, are in very different positions. The new laws censor their voices as well as those of their faculty and students.
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