Floyd Abrams and Institutional Memory

Dan’s dad gave a Richard S. Levitt lecture at Iowa Law.  I can’t even imagine how much it cost the school to get Floyd to go to Iowa, but that’s neither here nor there.  Ronald K.L. Collins excerpts the lecture at Concurring Opinions, providing a time line of sorts on how free speech under the First Amendment has been perceived over time.

Many people, many of whom are now in college getting edumacated, struggle to appreciate the world in context, that the ideas they hold dear today weren’t always the ideas that others, while young, naïve and deeply progressive, held so very dear.  That’s where history comes in, institutional memory of where we came from to get where we are. Lessons of what worked and what didn’t. Learning what went wrong and why.

Not to make anyone cry, but learning the Fallacy of Chesterton’s Fence.

Years Ago: In London with Justice Scalia & Nadine Strossen (then President of the ACLU): “We started talking about some First Amendment cases, particularly Hill v. Colorado, a ruling affirming the constitutionality of significant limitations on speech in areas near facilities in which abortions were performed. All three of us agreed on how terrible the majority opinion of Justice Stevens was and how enlightened Justice Scalia’s dissent was. (In those days, although not more recently, the ACLU, which Nadine then headed, took a strong First Amendment stand against such laws.) Justice Scalia, one could tell, enjoyed the conversation, and at one point leaned back, drink in hand, cigar in mouth, and said ‘you know, I’m not really bad about the First Amendment.’”

Campus Censorship in the 1950s: Reading [about] examples [of censorship on college campuses today], I couldn’t help but compare them to the time when I entered Cornell University more — as you will undoubted be surprised to hear — than a few years ago. At that time, upon entrance into the university, all students were required to sign some sort of document agreeing that we could be suspended for saying just about anything on just about any topic of which the university disapproved. In fact, we were required to carry at all times some sort of identification card saying just that. And as I recall it, there really was very little controversial speech at all on campus — a real loss, I can say in retrospect — but very much the ethos of life in America on and off campus in the long ago 1950s.”

Free Speech on College Campuses Today: “Just about a year ago, I gave a speech in Philadelphia at Temple University in which I maintained that the single greatest threat to freedom of speech in the country was on college campuses. I pointed out, as I would today, that while our problems did not approach those in many other countries around the world, that they were serious, troubling, even disturbing. Nothing that has occurred in the last year has led me to change that view. Part of the problem stems from the behavior—misbehavior might be the better word–of college and university administrations. The indispensable organization called FIRE, which tracks the behavior of colleges and universities with respect to free speech on campus, has just published its list of the 10 worst colleges for free speech in 2016. I held my breath as I read it, wondering if your great university would make the list in time for me to comment on it in this talk.”

The New Censors: “[T]oday there are new censors who seek to place new limits on what may be said on campus. And I’m sorry to say they’re students. . . . Most campus activism in public universities is protected by First Amendment and is indispensable if society is to change for the better. But too often in recent days, students have overstepped the bounds of activism into demanding a sort of de facto censorship. And too often, those desires of those students are accommodated by all-too-compliant university administrators that are willing to bend to their demands rather than risk the turmoil or worse that could result in their not doing so.”

In my Wednesday “Cross” interview at Fault Lines, I interviewed FIRE’s president, Greg Lukianoff.  Twitting about it, I said,

There will come a day when the certainties of your feelings about speech, your ability to “tolerate” speech that doesn’t conform to your sensibilities, will give way to a more mature view of free speech. Mean words won’t make you cry anymore, but just shrug and chuckle.

Learn from Floyd. Learn from history. Don’t be a moron, no matter how good it makes you feel for the moment.  And order some personal note cards, so you can send Greg a nice, handwritten “thank you” note for defending what future you will come to realize matters.  And send one to Floyd, too, for good remembering.

4 comments on “Floyd Abrams and Institutional Memory

  1. losingtrader

    I’m still waiting for a DA somewhere to indict Trump for encouraging that supporters at his rallies punch protesters in the face. Little of what Trump has said at some of these rallies about beating up protesters is rhetorical, especially since there has now been at least one such incident –an incident where the person throwing the punch said the protester should be killed.

    Why do I feel the Republican Party nomination is going to come down to a sort of Louisiana face-off of Edwin Edwards v David Duke . It does make for nice bumper sticker sales revenue, however. We can surely improve on ,”Vote for the Lizard, not the Wizard”

    1. SHG Post author

      How the hell do you end up with this post being about castigating Trump? Keep politics out of it.

  2. Lawrence Kaplan

    One of the previous Levitt lecturers was none other than Jystice Stevens himself.

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