A new free speech organization

October 27, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Given the hegemony and influence of “progressives” who aren’t “progressive” when they try to stifle speech, there can’t be too many of these organizations. We have, among others, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, Counterweight, and the Academic Freedom Alliance.

Now we have a new one: The United States Free Speech Union(USFSU), which operates on a Substack page; the link in this sentence goes to both the Mission Statement and and the list of advisors (I’m on the advisory council of several of these committees/groups, and this is one; note that there are four advisors from the University of Chicago, aka “Free Speech Central”).

Here’s the entry page to the new organization’s site, The Free Voice (click on screenshot):

While these groups overlap to some extent, there are also differences. For example, the Academic Freedom Alliance concentrates on violations of academic freedom and free speech in higher education, and also has a stable of lawyers and law professors if you need legal help. FIRE also concentrates on colleges and uses “epistolary pressure”: publicity and writing letters to miscreant, speech-violating universities. FIRE also publishes on its website violations by colleges and universities (notably its “disinvitation database“) and ranks many of them yearly for free-speech policy.

USFSU concentrates (not exclusively) on violations of free speech in employer/employment situations, which can include academia. It, too, writes letters and applies moral pressure to miscreant colleges, but also makes legal referrals.  Here is part of USFSU’s mission statement:

Our mission is at once straightforward and difficult: The Free Speech Union defends free speech, pure and simple. We defend the principles—never popular and now reckoned by many to be outmoded—that speech must be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” (to quote Justice William Brennan) and that “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in matters of politics…or other matters of opinion” (to quote Justice Robert Jackson). We defend people of any political stripe whose expression is muzzled and whose livelihoods and educations are threatened because of the opinions they hold or the ideas they avow. We know that some on the Right have cynically and speciously embraced free speech as a cudgel to beat their ideological opponents; we know that some on the Left have abandoned their commitment to free speech rather than defend the expression of views they despise. But we are a nonpartisan free speech advocacy group. Uniquely, we embrace no cause but free expression; we will not allow that cause to be politicized.

We believe that all opinions and ideas ought to be vigorously disputed, and that those who engage in public discussion should expect that their views may arouse anger and condemnation. But we distinguish between contesting ideas and driving those who espouse them from their jobs and from the public square. We disagree with those who view organized and vociferous public criticism of someone’s opinions as, in itself, a dangerous sign of “cancel culture.” But we condemn those who accompany such criticism with illiberal demands for censure or dismissal. An engaged and informed citizenry is vital to democracy. A coercive atmosphere in which people fear that voicing their opinions on matters of public interest could cost them their jobs or their educations degrades our civic and intellectual life and imperils self-government.

The people in charge of the USFSU are these:

Benjamin Schwarz Chief Executive Officer

  • Author; former National and Literary Editor of The Atlantic Monthly

Jevon Conroy Chief Operating Officer

  • Attorney; Social Entrepreneur

If you want to contact the USFSU, go to this link.

And, as an example of epistolary pressure, Ben Schwarz has written a long letter to the leadership of MIT about the Dorian Abbot case. (You’ll recall that MIT canceled a prestigious lecture by Abbot on global warming after they found that he had criticized diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.) Here Schwarz dismantles MIT’s “defense” of the cancellation—these defenders include MIT’s President, its Provost, and the head of the EAPS department that invited Abbot to speak—as well as defenses by other “progressives” who hold ideological purity above free speech.

You can read Ben’s letter by clicking on the screenshot:

It’s a long letter, aiming to shoot down every argument defending MIT’s actions, so I’ll reproduce just the first two paragraphs. These will give you an idea of its aim and its strong tone.

Dear President Rief, Provost Schmidt, and Professor van der Hilst:

As CEO and President of the US Free Speech Union, I write not to rehearse the criticism with which you are already amply familiar regarding the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences’ (EAPS) cancelation of Dorian Abbot’s John H. Carlson Lecture. Rather, I write to express my consternation regarding the public statements you have made in your efforts to defend or contextualize that decision. Those statements misconstrue and mischaracterize the meaning and purpose of academic freedom and of the scholarly public lecture. They reveal an unawareness of a host of historical topics with which academic leaders should be conversant. And, in some instances, they are so recklessly misleading that they approach calumny. In short, in a situation that demands clarity, rigor, and honesty, your statements contort scholarly principles.

You have issued a number of justifications, which President Rief and Provost Schmidt patronizingly label “facts,” to correct what you have averred are distortions introduced by “the media” (to quote President Rief and Provost Schmidt). According to you, these facts are: (1) It is “a mistake” to view the cancelation of Professor Abbot’s lecture “as an affront on [sic] academic freedom” (to quote Professor van der Hilst), because, as you all have explained, “Professor Abbot has the freedom to speak as he chooses on any subject” (to quote Provost Schmidt), just as EAPS has “the freedom to pick the speaker who best fits our needs” (to quote Professor van der Hilst). (2) Concomitantly, because the Carlson Lecture is an annual address in which MIT’s EAPS chooses a distinguished scientist to communicate her or his ideas about climate science to the public, not primarily to fellow scientists, academic freedom is not at issue. (3) Because some students and faculty at MIT have deemed distasteful Professor Abbot’s views on an unrelated topic—diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies in the academy—the controversy created by those students and faculty would “overshadow” (to quote Provost Schmidt) the purpose of the Carlson Lecture. (4) Professor Abbot is unfit to deliver the Carlson Lecture because of what Provost Schmidt has characterized as his “manner of presenting” his arguments regarding DEI policies, arguments that Professor van der Hilst states draw “analogies to genocide,” are “deeply offensive,” “inflammatory, polarizing,” and “stifle” discussion.

I address your assertions seriatim. . . .

A big “OUCH” to MIT!

14 thoughts on “A new free speech organization

  1. I’m cheered to see that the list of advisors includes the names of authors I have been reading for years, viz., Sullivan, Strossen, Pluckrose, Pinker, Leiter, Kaminer, and, of course, Coyne.

  2. Powerful stuff, a “big OUCH to MIT” indeed:

    Nevertheless, if one believes that the academy has a responsibility to ensure that members of the public have access to the thinking of the best scholars willing to speak to them, and that academic freedom, and therefore the advancement of knowledge, demands that those scholars be judged on their intellectual distinction and not by their opinions on politics or academic policy, then one is forced to conclude that it is not Professor Abbot who has failed to properly model academic values but the three of you.

  3. I normally lose interest in letters which go on and on—but I was pleased to make an exception in the case of Benjamin Schwartz’ hard-hitting demolition of the MIT weasel-words. I thought it particularly relevant for him to recall the period of the “Red scare”, and to note the prestigious public lectures delivered by such Stalinist notables as Eric Hobsbawm. My impression, as I have stated before, is that the atmosphere during the Red scare was less intimidating, if anything, than that during the present non-woke scare. The reason may be that some establishment figures (even some Republicans like Senator Margaret Chase Smith) spoke out against the excesses of the earlier scare. In contrast, nearly all academic establishments have so far adopted the invertebrate posture of the chief executives of Evergreen State, Smith College, etc. etc., and now MIT. This difference itself should provoke some thought—perhaps about the commonplace American misuse of the term “liberal”.

  4. Canadians might be interested in the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, which has been around for almost 30 years now. Started at the University of Western Ontario in Psychology after early examples of disrupting talks about controversial topics.

  5. This could be duplicate … previous message disappeared.

    Canadians might be interested in the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, which has been around for almost 30 years now. Started at University of Western Ontario in Psychology as reaction to early disruptions of speakers on controversial topics.


    1. And let me make it clear that I am not blaming Mr Schwartz for the fact that a publication for which he was national editor and on his watch did indeed try to muzzle and threaten the livelihood of an academic for an opinion he made in private and which was made public against his will. Mr Dreher has the right to try to get someone cancelled and that is not Mr Schwartz’s fault.

      I am serious in that I hope he would equally regard the actions of the American Conservative as an assault on free speech. If not then the excellent principles they profess are worth nothing.

      1. Why are you bringing this up, then? You are raising a hypothetical situation that is irrelevant to this discussion: “I hope that Mr. Schwarz would think this. . . ” when you don’t blame him. But you sure are IMPLICATING him in the situation.

        1. Given that he was the national editor of a publication engaged in call out culture and cancel culture during his time there and now he is head of an organisation that is against those things then I think it a reasonable question. I don’t recall him complaining at the time.

          And don’t forget that all the people trying to cancel this philosopher for his privately expressed opinions were themselves masquerading as free speech warriors.

          I think it a perfectly reasonable question.

          You don’t agree, then fine.

  6. The proof of the pudding is, of course, always in the eating.

    A few years ago the “Festival for Dangerous Ideas” invited a spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir to come to the Sydney Opera House and give a speech entitled “Honour Killings are Morally Justified”.

    All the free speech warriors were the loudest in calling for the disinvitation in this case.

    For my part I was intrigued about how anyone could possibly morally justify “honour” killings, but I was never to find out because the speech was cancelled and never held elsewhere, nor posted online.

    I wonder how this new organisation would have handled this particular case. Would they have gone into bat for Hizb ut-Tahrir?

    I wonder if any University would be mischievous enough to test the waters on speeches with difficult subjects.

    1. Mr. Herbert–I don’t normally intervene in these matters, but in this case, I think my clarifications might be helpful. TAC and I shared a similar outlook on foreign policy–to put it crudely, non-interventionism. My views on that subject happened to be rooted in the Left–the realism of E.H. Carr and the critique of the sources of American conduct from the “Wisconsin School” of New Left historians, William Appleman Williams most notably. My remit as national editor at TAC was to bring in new voices, mostly from the Left, and to write on foreign policy, urbanism, and the UK (in those pieces I quite deliberately favorably invoked Marx, Marshall Berman, and many other other figures on the Left). Unlike my job as national and literary editor at the Atlantic, at TAC I was uninvolved in determining the editorial direction of the magazine, and I am entirely ignorant of the controversy to which you allude. The answer to the broader question you raise is easy: Throughout my career (indeed, since 5th grade) I have had no difficulty whatsoever taking a consistent and principled position on free expression. If the situations at TAC and the Sydney Opera were as you describe them, then I would absolutely oppose the calls for the dismissal of the academic in question and of the disinvitation at Sydney.

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