Recently, over 150 journalists, writers, and academics signed a “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s Magazine wherein they expressed concern over what they perceived to be an increasingly intolerant environment on campuses, in newsrooms, and throughout our society, pointing particularly to what they believed were censorious actions by those who have become impassioned advocates for social justice. As they noted, “the restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.”
Numerous responses to this letter, offering both critique and affirmation, have raised important questions about the arguments put forth by the letter’s authors—about the character and circumstances surrounding recent examples of “censoriousness,” about potentially romanticized notions of open debate in universities and media organizations, and about why individuals from underrepresented and oppressed minorities have such strong reactions to calls for “civility” and “tolerance” from those in closer proximity to centers of power.
Debates over free expression and its limits have been a part of the democratic project for centuries as we attempt to secure “the blessings of liberty” for all members of our society. The current iteration of this discussion is a welcome moment of reflection in the midst of a particularly fractious juncture and we can only be well-served if our discussion remains grounded in our shared commitment to accuracy, respect, and a mutual appreciation of the values we share while we simultaneously interrogate those values so they might evolve.
- For example, this account of recent events involving the editor of the magazine Poetry (“Shock Tactic,” The Times Literary Supplement, July 10, 2020, p. 31)
Find out how you can get informed, get involved, and take action on this and other issues.
What some experts are saying:
- This ‘free speech’? No thanks! Fauzia Rafique, Georgia Straight, 7/9/20
- A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate, The Objective, 7/10/20
- The Left Needs to Reclaim Free Speech, Jeet Heer, The Nation, 7/10/20
- Why I Signed the Harper’s Letter, Roya Hakakian, Quillette, 7/11/20
- A Deeply Provincial View of Free Speech, Hannah Giorgis, The Atlantic, 7/13/20
- Don’t Fall for the ‘Cancel Culture’ Scam, Michael Hobbes, The Huffington Post, 7/10/20
- The Harper’s Letter: Why We Let The Other Side Speak, Paul Baumann, Commonweal, 7/17/20
- A Tale of Two Letters, Eliot A. Cohen, The Atlantic, 7/17/20
- Should We Cancel Aristotle? Agnes Callard, The New York Times, 7/21/20
- Unbecoming American. Johann N. Neem. The Hedgehog Review (Spring 2020), 102-113.
Research & Resources
Materials for further exploration:
- AAUP Resources on Academic Freedom, American Association of University Professors
- 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders
- 2019 State of the First Amendment Survey, First Amendment Center, Freedom Forum Institute
- Freedom of Expression, American Civil Liberties Union
- Defining Academic Freedom, Cary Nelson, Inside Higher Ed, 12/21/10
- The Limits of Academic Freedom, Gary A. Olson, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/9/2009