Friday, May 13, 2016
Floyd Abrams Speaks Freely to Political Correctness on America’s Campuses
First Amendment expert warns efforts to block or suppress political speech will get worse before they get better
If you ask judges and lawyers to blurt the name that comes to mind when given the verbal prompt “First Amendment,” a fair percentage will reply “Floyd Abrams.” Since being asked by The New York Times to defend its right to publish the Pentagon Papers 45 years ago, the 80-year-old partner at the New York law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel has become, as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “the most significant First Amendment lawyer of our age.” He has been asked by ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Time Magazine, among others, to represent them in high stakes constitutional litigation, with clients as diverse as the Brooklyn Museum of Art, National Public Radio commentator Nina Totenberg, Al Franken and Senator Mitch McConnell.
So it got some attention when Mr. Abrams, disgusted by the proliferating problem of coerced disinvitations of speakers from college campuses and the shouting down of speakers whom a determined minority of students wish to prevent their fellow students from hearing, decided to speak out. In lectures delivered a year ago at Temple University in Philadelphia and a few weeks ago at the University of Iowa, Mr. Abrams declared that the greatest threat to American free speech presently comes not from government’s mega-sophisticated electronic surveillance techniques, but from within academia—principally from “a minority of students who strenuously and, I think it is fair to say, contemptuously, disapprove of the views of speakers whose view of the world is different from theirs, and who seek to prevent those views from being heard.”
Mr. Abrams notes that it used to be that those guilty of suppressing speech on campus were university administrators, who felt threatened by campus speakers whose positions on political or social issues departed sharply from their own, and who didn’t want students to hear them. Now the ones trying to prevent students from hearing political and social viewpoints are other students.
“There’s simply too much suppression of speech by students who don’t want to hear or have others hear what they don’t think should be said,” Mr. Abrams says. “It occurred to me that if I had to identify one ongoing threat with respect to the First Amendment it was campus intolerance to speech and campus willingness to ban or prevent speech of which students disapprove.”