FAN 99.6 (First Amendment News) Floyd Abrams on Campus Censorship (Then & Now) & Related Topics

On March 1, 2016, Floyd Abrams gave the Levitt Lecture at the University of Iowa School of Law. Below are a few excerpts from his remarks:

Floyd Abrams

Floyd Abrams

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.”

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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.”

Mr. Trump & the First Amendment: “[I]t’s worth remembering that some of [Mr. Trump’s] rhetoric would not only be controversial in other democratic nations, as it certainly is here, but illegal. In Belgium, a member of Parliament was convicted of a crime for saying, ‘Stop the Islamification of Belgium’ and making similar statements. In England, a man was convicted for carrying a poster that said, ‘Islam out of Britain-Protect the British People.’ Whatever you think of more than one not dissimilar statement of Mr. Trump in this campaign – and, in case you’re interested, I think they are appalling – the First Amendment protects them.” (See also Abrams & Collins: “Confronting Trump — An American Debate Censorship Cannot Stop,” Concurring Opinions, Dec. 18, 2015).

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