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Fighting for Free Speech on Campus: A Conversation with Lucas Morel

Academia has to be a sanctuary for free speech and free thought. The Academic Freedom Alliance is calling universities back to their core mission: the pursuit of knowledge. That pursuit requires humility, openness, and the free expression of a diversity of opinions.

The Academic Freedom Alliance publicly launched on March 8, 2021. Over 200 scholars from across the nation and ideological spectrum united around the principles of academic freedom to form the organization. Another dozen attorneys from some of the country’s top law firms serve as its advisory council. The group’s mission is dedicated to protecting the rights of faculty members at colleges and universities to speak, instruct, and publish without fear of sanction or punishment.

As Director of Operations for the AFA, I wanted to sit down and have a conversation with Professor Lucas Morel about his views on academic freedom as well as his early experiences with the Academic Freedom Alliance. Professor Morel is the John K. Boardman, Jr. Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University. He specializes in the study of American Government, Black American politics, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Ralph Ellison. Professor Morel also serves as one of the nine Academic Committee members for the AFA.

 

Howard Muncy: Professor Morel, what attracted you to join the Academic Freedom Alliance, and what are your thoughts on the need for this new organization to protect academic freedom and free speech?

Lucas Morel: I think it is important to remind colleges of their purpose, which is to pursue knowledge. So much time is spent talking about the practices and policies that need to be implemented—with diversity, inclusion, and equity being on the top of the food chain right now—that we often forget to ask: why are we a community of scholars to begin with? What is it that we’re trying to inculcate and teach our students? It is knowledge.

The way you do that is to have a diversity of human beings. Most importantly, this entails a diversity of thought. I think colleges and universities should be devoted to that idea. So, when the AFA was established, we realized we did not just need to be another organization that simply publicizes instances of colleges betraying their own mission and stated policies when they crack down on professors who have allegedly broken some code of conduct because of what they said, repeated, or quoted. We also needed some legal heft behind our overall approach to protect academic freedom.

In other words, we knew what some of these isolated scholars must feel like when it’s them against the bureaucracy, them against the university legal counsel. They say you cannot beat city hall. Well, in this case, it is tough to beat your own administration if they’ve got all the powers behind them, especially legal ones. A lot of times, professors are not aware of their own rights. The AFA gathered a large number of likeminded people committed to this principle—not just academics, but also attorneys experienced in this field and donors who were not interested in partisan polemics, but in the traditional mission of a university. Again, that mission requires diversity of thought. That, in turn, entails protection of speech.

Once we had a group of professors, lawyers, and donors united around this cause, we decided to broadcast that we existed and that we were going to help scholars who faced attacks.

 

HM: The national press coverage for the launch of the AFA drew considerable interest. Among the pieces that received the most attention was your article in Persuasion that dealt with Frederick Douglass. What was the inspiration for this article? How do lessons from Douglass’s experiences relate to the modern environment surrounding academic freedom?

LM: The essay I wrote coordinated with the official launch of the Academic Freedom Alliance. We were trying to generate publicity about the AFA in order to draw attention to our mission and aim.

I study not just Abraham Lincoln, but also Frederick Douglass. Douglass consistently made the point that it was in despotic regimes, like the Southern slavocracy, where freedom of speech was not guaranteed. Mail was censored, abolitionist thought and sermons were threatened and mobbed, and individuals were lynched for their beliefs. Yet such practices were not only found in the South. I must say, Frederick Douglass encountered some pretty hostile mobs in New England, mobs where he had to fight not only with his words but with his fists. White abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison also suffered this fate. Female orators were mobbed, too, on the basis of not just what they were saying, but because they had the effrontery to be a woman speaking in front of a crowd.

So, I wanted to look more closely at the period and at the many times that Frederick Douglass brought up how freedom of speech was needed in order for the truth to prevail and, ultimately, for freedom to prevail. Alongside the freedom to speak, Douglass spoke about the freedom to hear, or what he called “the right of the hearer.” In Frederick Douglas I saw a champion of freedom of speech, both in the right of the speaker and the right of the hearer, because he was a champion of freedom.

And I thought, “Wow, right there is a campus connection.” Whether it deals with economics, politics, or history, so many college students are only really hearing one side of the story from their own professors and especially from visiting speakers. What about the other side? What about the right of those students to hear a different perspective? I have seen panels where all the speakers are on one side of the issue. How does that benefit students if they’re only hearing one side?

 

HM: Teaching politics lends itself to the exploration of controversial subjects. How has your experience in the university classroom shaped your view on the importance of academic freedom?

LM: I teach political philosophy. I’m more of a theorist than a political scientist. My courses include an introduction to political philosophy class, which means I teach a lot of content that I do not come anywhere near believing in, but it is content students need to know because it has shaped history. For example, I teach the Communist Manifesto, which in a certain sense was kind of the origin of critical theory and critical race theory. I teach Machiavelli, and I hope students don’t take too kindly to what Machiavelli advised. Sometimes I teach Nietzsche. But I run the gamut. In other words, I cover ideas that I personally think are subversive of freedom. But I also think that knowing about these ideas is important. I am concerned when there is a movement, either politically or socially, to silence ideas that do not conform to the majority opinion—what we call “cancel culture” today. I am concerned when some official or unofficial authority says, “Well, you can’t talk about this,” or “You can’t say that or write about the other thing.”

A personal example: at Middlebury College, there is this organization called the Alexander Hamilton Forum where they bring in diverse scholars. Last year, I was pitted against Leslie Harris, who was a fact checker for the “1619 Project.” She endorsed the project, but she also wrote a Politico piece expressing her concerns that the New York Times retained and repeated serious errors that she had pointed out to them. At any rate, the event was pitched as a debate entitled “1619 or 1776: Was America Founded on Slavery?” Harris took the 1619 position, and I was to present the 1776 school of thought. It was brought to my attention that there was a petition in circulation with over 600 signatures to de-platform me. Those who created that petition didn’t think that the very question should be allowed to be heard, explored, or attempted to be answered by more than one scholar. Essentially, that they asserted that it was indisputable that slavery was essential to the founding of America. Thankfully, I still got to participate via Zoom.

College campuses have to be in the vanguard of protecting the right of diverse thought that is uttered in good faith and civility. But even civility is being challenged now as, “Oh, if you’re in favor of civility, you’re in favor of the status quo, and therefore, you’re in favor of white supremacy.” I have been accused of being a white supremacist. Go figure. My goodness, if on American college campuses you cannot be free, your students cannot be free, and if we are self-censoring to avoid challenging situations, then both hands are practically tied behind our backs in terms of trying to figure out what’s true, right, beautiful, and noble in the world.

 

HM: As the Director of Operations for the AFA, I receive numerous requests for help and am made aware of a variety of issues confronting scholars. I have read instances where certain court cases, such as the 1857 Dred Scott decision, cannot be used in classrooms, even some law school classes. Documentaries like PBS’s Eyes on the Prize have also been forbidden in some institutions, due to the racist and coarse language captured on film. Many times, these removals are presented as an administrative effort to avoid traumatic exposure, but in others, they may be the result of a recent legislative policy. This has to be a worrisome trend for instructors who rely heavily on historical primary sources to teach.

LM: I recommend Eyes on The Prize all the time, even to high school teachers that I work with. That is astonishing to me. Talk about a self-inflicted wound: removing essential historical artifacts from the mental landscape of our youth who need to know that this stuff happened. Wow, incredible.

There is a threat right now. I recently read about a professor in Iowa, who is not tenured, who is revising her syllabus and how she will present things, including her PowerPoint slides. She is concerned that something that she says or covers might violate a new state law. Basically, she is revising her course because of the fear that some student is going to trap and ensnare her, when she is really just trying to examine particular matters dealing with race in American history. There are similar bills in other states. Anything that has that kind of chilling effect on instruction has to be of concern.

HM: I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier about the diversity of viewpoints and the importance of hearing the other side. Why is this so important for an education?

LM: Lawyers will tell you that they love to take on opposing counsel who only know their side of the controversy. They will take that opportunity every chance they get.

I know this because I do some unofficial pre-law counseling. When I have talked to alumni who come back, I have asked, “Hey, if you had to take college over again, and were still intent on becoming a lawyer, what would you do differently?” The answer from many is, “I would take more classes that required me to make the argument in opposition to what I personally believe in, or at least to participate in some part of the curriculum that would require me to look rigorously at more than one side of an issue.” This reinforces the famous John Stuart Mill quote, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

HM: Selections from John Stuart Mill’s 1859 work On Liberty are frequently cited as strong philosophical arguments for free speech. In Professor Keith Whittington’s book Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, Whittington divides Mill’s arguments on free speech into three categories. One category relates to the humility to hear others with the possibility that you might be wrong; one involves the important right for listeners to hear opposing arguments; and another category is based on the need to have ideas tested. So far, you have highlighted the importance of the second two with great historical and professional examples. Is there an example from your studies that we could draw a connection about the importance of Mill’s recommendation of humility?

LM: For sure. Let me give you an example. I will teach two sections of American national government in the fall. All politics majors have to take it, but it can also be counted as an elective under our foundations and distribution requirements, what some call general education. I cannot assume all the students in my class are going to be politics majors, but we spend a lot of time in The Federalist Papers. I announce to them at the very beginning that nobody is giving The Federalist Papers an imprimatur, in other words, their complete seal of approval. We do not have to interpret the Constitution in this way. These were newspaper editorials. But I do stress the remarkable coherence and philosophical rigor in how these editorials were laid out.

What’s really intriguing to me was what Hamilton did in the very first essay, Federalist #1. In essence, Federalist #1 is an essay about moderation. I would connect this to what I believe Mill was arguing about humility. That is, we must have a due humility as fellow citizens in our interactions with one another, especially when it comes to elections, forming public policy, and in this specific case, creating a nation. This humility creates an environment where we can have good winners and good losers. Today, it is becoming very difficult for us to act that way.

Hamilton wrote:

So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy.

So what Hamilton is essentially saying is “Look, we’ve got this constitution. The only thing we should be talking about is in front of us: the text of this constitution. I’m going to make arguments that I think this is going to cure what ails us, and you’ll hear opposing arguments. It’s the arguments we need to look at, not the motives of the person making them.” Even more, this essay was hidden in anonymity, right? He published under the pseudonym Publius.

I think this is a great lesson on political moderation and civic engagement.  I use this text as a reminder for a variety of hot button issues. What I am trying to show students is that it’s not about anybody’s motives. It’s not about anybody’s character. The questions are the policies and the arguments. Once you know that there are going to be good and bad, smart and dumb people on both sides of a question, it is less about what authority this or that side has and more about what’s actually being argued.

 

HM: I would like to return to the Academic Freedom Alliance for the final questions. Going into a new semester, how do you envision the immediate impact of the AFA, and how would you measure the long-term success of the organization?

LM: Well, two things come to mind. First, we are drawing attention to cases at the collegiate and the law school level, cases in which there has been administrative abuse and intimidation of professors who have allegedly violated some academic code, when in fact they’re just doing their jobs. The early publicizing of that is important. We contact the universities to let them know, “Look, we’re paying attention. You need to do right by your employee here. And if you don’t, be assured that we will come to the table legally to make sure that the person who we’re defending has a legitimate First Amendment right that will be defended.”

Academia has to be a place, a refuge, a sanctuary for free speech and free thought. This should be modeled by instructors, for replication by their students. The number of students who are self-censoring because they do not want to be canceled by their peers is alarming. The ubiquity of social media has so many afraid to talk in the classroom, and that cannot lead to an education.

Second, we shouldn’t need to exist in a few years. In other words, if we’re successful, we should put ourselves out of business. If universities get back to the task of protecting freedom of speech, academically, and the First Amendment, we will have accomplished a major goal. Right now, people just want common sense applied. I am biased here, because I am a member of AFA, but I think and trust that reason will prevail.

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