Sign Cornel West and Robert George’s statement in favor of free speech

March 25, 2017 • 10:15 am


Now is your chance, if you’re an academic or affiliated with a college or university, to sign a well-crafted statement in favor of free and untrammeled expression on campuses. The statement, “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression” was written by Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, and Cornel West, a professor of African-American Studies at Harvard. The statement appears on the website for Princeton’s “James Madison Program in American Institutions and Ideals.”

West, a well-known African-American public intellectual, left Harvard 14 years ago for Princeton after a battle with ex-President Larry Summers, but has now returned to his original job.

Apparently the motivating factor for this statement was the unfortunate incident at Middlebury College in Vermont in which Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, was prevented from giving his talk at the College by a bunch of petulant, yelling, fire-alarm-pulling students, most of whom had almost certainly not read Murray’s book; and at any rate, Murray was not going to talk about that book, which had led some to accuse him of racism. He did give the talk, but in a sequestered room with a live feed, but then was attacked by students (and perhaps some outsiders) as he left the venue.

Since Murray’s shabby treatment, over 100 Middlebury College professors have chimed in supporting free expression and implicitly denigrating what their students did to Murray. You can see their signed statement, “Free Inquiry on Campus” at the link; here’s an excerpt:

Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.

The incivility and coarseness that characterize so much of American politics and culture cannot justify a response of incivility and coarseness on the college campus.

The impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of free discourse can never justify efforts to silence speech and debate.

Exposure to controversial points of view does not constitute violence.

Students have the right to challenge and to protest non-disruptively the views of their professors and guest speakers.

A protest that prevents campus speakers from communicating with their audience is a coercive act . . .

This, and the rest of the document, is a strong repudiation of Middlebury students’ privileged and entitled whining against what they consider “hate speech”, which really consists of things that Facebook and other Lefties have told them is speech that violates their purity code and should offend them. This is, of course, the reverse of the situation in the 1960s, when we the students, were the liberals and were opposed by a conservative faculty. Things have done a complete U-turn since that time. Now it’s the faculty fighting censorship by the students.

Lest you want to say that Murray had no business talking at Middlebury because he was a racist (an accusation I will not make since I haven’t read his book nor followed his doings), remember that Cornel West is a black man who has spent his entire career combating racism. Nevertheless, he and George are standing up for the right of Murray and others to speak freely.

Here’s the George/West statement in its entirety. It is wonderful, and the emphasis is mine.

The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one’s willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one’s beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.

That’s why all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses. As John Stuart Mill taught, a recognition of the possibility that we may be in error is a good reason to listen to and honestly consider—and not merely to tolerate grudgingly—points of view that we do not share, and even perspectives that we find shocking or scandalous. What’s more, as Mill noted, even if one happens to be right about this or that disputed matter, seriously and respectfully engaging people who disagree will deepen one’s understanding of the truth and sharpen one’s ability to defend it.

None of us is infallible. Whether you are a person of the left, the right, or the center, there are reasonable people of goodwill who do not share your fundamental convictions. This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or that all speakers are equally worth listening to. It certainly does not mean that there is no truth to be discovered. Nor does it mean that you are necessarily wrong. But they are not necessarily wrong either. So someone who has not fallen into the idolatry of worshiping his or her own opinions and loving them above truth itself will want to listen to people who see things differently in order to learn what considerations—evidence, reasons, arguments—led them to a place different from where one happens, at least for now, to find oneself.

All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held—even our most cherished and identity-forming—beliefs.

It is all-too-common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities. Sometimes this is done by questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent from prevailing opinions; or by disrupting their presentations; or by demanding that they be excluded from campus or, if they have already been invited, disinvited. Sometimes students and faculty members turn their backs on speakers whose opinions they don’t like or simply walk out and refuse to listen to those whose convictions offend their values. Of course, the right to peacefully protest, including on campuses, is sacrosanct. But before exercising that right, each of us should ask: Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?

Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking. Such an ethos protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.

If you have any affiliation with a college or university, be you faculty or staff, I recommend that you sign this statement. I have. You can join me simply by sending your willingness to sign, your name and your affiliation to  jmadison@Princeton.eduOver 600 people have already signed, including Harvard’s Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris and former Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey S. Flier.

It is ironic that Harvard itself, largely through the actions of President Drew Faust and her deans, has created a climate on campus that represses alternative political views and tries to punish students for exercising their freedom of association in single-sex “Finals Clubs” which are not formally affiliated with Harvard. Those clubs are both all-male and all-female, and yet although they’re independent of the University, Faust promised to punish any student belonging to them. (I’m not sure whether these punishments were ever meted out.)

And don’t forget Harvard’s shameful episode of the “social justice placemats,” in which students were given Leftist “talking points” on four issues of social justice (Islamophobia, etc.) to use when they went home for Christmas. Faust, it seems, is at odds with many of her faculty and at least some of her students.


33 thoughts on “Sign Cornel West and Robert George’s statement in favor of free speech

  1. Cornel West is a supporter of BDS, a boycott movement of Israeli institutions, that seeks to exclude Israelis and Israeli speech from U.S. universities. BDS shuts down Israeli speakers on U.S. campuses. Him authoring this statement is hypocritical in the extreme and is tantamount to him “believing in free speech for me but not for thee” unless he dissociates himself from BDS. More information here:

    and here:

    1. Yes, before I noticed this comment I wrote this as an addendum, so I’ll second yours.

      I’ve been informed by The Algemeiner that West has been accused of hypocrisy for confecting this statement while not protesting the censorship of pro-Israel speakers by proponents of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement. (I consider this anti-Semitic because its organizers have said in private that part of their goal is to eliminate the state of Israel. Algemeiner notes this:

      World-renowned legal expert and human rights activist Alan Dershowitz called West a “major hypocrite” for “believing in free speech for me and not for thee.”

      [Alan] Dershowitz told The Algemeiner, “I have yet to see [West] actively involved in protesting groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) when they try to shut down pro-Israel speakers on campuses. He supports radical anti-Israel tactics in an unprincipled way and is the ultimate denier of free speech.”

      Dr. Richard Cravatts, president emeritus of anti-BDS faculty group Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, said that given West’s “strident and hysterical anti-Israelism, the statement he co-authored seems to confirm that he is exhibiting doublethink.”

      . . . Miriam Elman, an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University and regular contributor to the conservative blog Legal Insurrection, said that West’s co-sponsorship of the statement “provides the perfect opportunity for him to disavow BDS as among the greatest threats to academic freedom, free speech and expression on the US campus today.”

      “By failing to disavow BDS at this juncture, does West mean to imply that he supports academic freedom and free speech in general, but that Israel is such an evil, pariah state that he is willing to throw these principles to the wind when it comes to this single country? This is the height of hypocrisy. I would have more respect for West if he were to admit that he believes Israel should be an exception to the general principles of academic freedom and campus free speech, and offer a defense of that position,” she told The Algemeiner.

      . . . West declined comment for this article due to scheduling issues.

      I haven’t followed West’s activities re the BDS, so I can’t comment about that, but BDS has indeed been involved in shutting down many events (see here, here, and here, for example.)

      And the statement is about censorship in colleges and other venues, so any advocacy of BDS by West may be irrelevant if you just want to endorse the statement as it stands.

      Nevertheless, West does seem to be using a double standard if he’s supported BDS, given that BDS engages–frequently–in just the sort of activities his letter decries. It would be seemly if West now condemns the organization that violates his statement. If not, I still approve of the statement but would write West off as a blatant hypocrite.

    2. Cornell West is pro-Palestine, and apparently even pro-BDS, but to the best of my knowledge (and I’ve followed his writings and lectures off and on over the years, though not exhaustively) he’s never said or done anything to encourage the silencing of pro-Israel speakers. I certainly disagree with his position on the Israel/Palestine conflict, but in the absence of him trying to silence pro-Israel speakers, I don’t think you can accuse him of hypocrisy. (I’ve also never read or heard him say anything that was anti-Semitic.)

      Nor is it fair to say he ““believ[es] in free speech for me but not for thee.” The casus belli for his joint statement with Prof. George was the effort to bar conservative speakers from campus, generally, and the disruption of Charles Murray’s speaking engagement at Middlebury, more specifically. These are causes and speakers I’m certain Prof. West does not agree with personally.

      1. “…he’s never said or done anything to encourage the silencing of pro-Israel speakers.”

        Sometimes not speaking up is an action itself, especially if you’re widely known to support an organization that is infamous for stifling free speech.

        1. True. But if one is going to accuse someone of rank hypocrisy, one shouldn’t rely on silence alone, but should provide a contradictory statement from that person (or at least cite an instance where that person was queried on the issue but declined to address it).

          Plus, West’s joint statement with George is facially neutral and appears to cover all instances of speakers being denied no-platformed. It admits of no exception for BDS or anything else.

          1. Even leaving aside countless events when Israeli and Jewish speakers and artists were interrupted or stopped alltogether, the official BDS policy speaks for itself: to boycott all universities, academics, writers, artists etc. who are Israeli citizens. This is a muzzle of censorship put on an entire country. And this is what Professor West advocates for. One beautifully written, very general letter in which he doesn’t mention that he is an advocate of censorship himself (as Professor George doesn’t mention his ideas of silencing LGBT representatives) seem like a hypocrisy on the part on both good professors.

    3. Hypocrites (and I am not sure that West *is* one; that’s irrelevant to my point) can nevertheless be *correct*. Think of the smoker who tells *you* to stop smoking because it will increase your risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

  2. Good for Professors West & George. It’s encouraging to see intellectuals from the left and right unite to support free expression.

  3. Signed.

    Although I’m not an academic professional, the first amendment is the single most important part of the constitution, in my opinion.

  4. This is an excellent statement, and it’s great to see some serious push-back against the regressive left. However, Cornell West does indeed need to disassociate himself from some of the tactics of the BDS movement to retain credibility.

    One of the lines I like the most is from Middlebury College professors where they point out that the tactic of the those who shut down speakers is a “coercive act”. Those who protest Murray, Milo, DeVos, Hirsi Ali, Petraeus etc see themselves as noble and seem quite unable to recognize what they’re doing is wrong. Their self-justification is just so pompous.

  5. Ok, I signed it. Although my little ‘ol affiliation and title seems mighty small compared to the others on the list.

  6. Although I am not an “…an academic or affiliated with a college or university…”, but a former university student and a lifelong learner, I wish I could add my signature to endorse the statements of George/West.

  7. While the content of the the George/West statement is good, it is rather long-winded. I could cut it in half with no loss of meaning and probably increased retention by the reader.

  8. Others have commented on Prof. Wests’ ties to the BDS movement. However, just as relevant and, IMHO, much worse is the background of his co-signer, Prof. Robert George.

    Prof. George is one of the leading intellectual gay bashers in the US. His obnoxious beliefs include the following:

    Princeton Professor Robert George believes gay intimacy should be illegal. He also thinks that marriage equality should be illegal. That is to say, he doesn’t believe that gay people should ever have gay sex, and that if they do, they should be thrown in jail. Professor George intends to see all currently married gay American couples have their marriage recognition ripped away from them. He disguises that cruel intent behind a pretension of doing what in his estimation is good for society. In that, he is a sadistic anti-gay bully, operating at the national level and enjoying an unwarranted prestigious association of his malicious ideas with the Princeton University name.

    I think it would be fair to query the good professor as to whether his support for free speech on campus includes it for LGBT individuals (not very likely as he apparently believes that such people should be locked up).

    1. I would say “just as irrelevant”. If the topic was whether or not you agree with Prof. George then this would be relevant. If the topic, however, is if the statement is a worthwhile expression of the principles of free speech then it is not.

      The use of ad hominem comments like this is emblematic of the larger problem. It’s like the basics of logic & critical thinking 101 have become some forgotten memory and replaced by an Internet of gossip where all we try to do is out-scandalize each other. I’ve grown tired of the dysfunctional and lazy rhetoric of demonization.

      1. I answered this in the last paragraph of my comment. It is highly relevant as to whether Prof. George also also supports free speech for LGBT individuals on college campuses. Given that he wants such persons jailed, I think it highly unlikely. They could hardly exercise their free speech rights on college campuses from the slammer.

        1. We will have to agree to disagree on this one. I understood this post to be about the statement of principle. If you wish to ignore the message and focus on the messenger that is your prerogative. If you conflate the two, however, you fall into the genetic fallacy. Prof. George could be odious but the statement still noble, just as a scientist can be personally disagreeable but their research results still factual.

          I get that you disapprove of Prof. George but what do you think of the actual statement?

          1. Sorry to barge into your discussion but I think the problem is broader. I’m reminded about beautiful appeals for peace, freedom and brotherhood written by Soviet Union and signed by the leading intellectuals in the West. They were absolutely wonderful propaganda tools and this propaganda worked (especially on young impressionable people) who believed in peaceful and free USRR under Stalin and didn’t believe those warmongering capitalists when they talked about hunger in Ukraine and about Gulag.
            Here we have two professors, each with favourite hate object, who thanks to their beautiful appeal in defence of free speech (which already is signed by the best people America has) gaining prestige and free ticket to spout their hate. When one of them will block an Israeli professor or ambassador at his university, those young and impressionable young people will say: “If such hero and defender of free speech says that the Israeli professor must not speak at our university, he really knows what he is talking about. The Israeli must be beyond the pale. We must support our Professor against detractors”. And a quite different group of young people would support Professor George when he tries to bar a married homosexual couple from talking at his university.
            Obviously, I would accept this appeal with pleasure, if Professor George added that in spite of his stance on homosexuality he would never ban any speech by homosexuals at his university, and if Professor West added that in spite of his negative attitude towards Israel he would never ban an Israeli defender from speaking at his university.

  9. I have a very nasty suspicion that two sympathisers of censorship with slightly damaged reputation (though in different circles) decided to hide behind the cloak of “free speech defenders”.

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