This issue of First Amendment News reproduces the text of a speech (The Aims of Education Address) Professor Geoffrey Stone delivered at the University of Chicago on September 22nd. The Aims Address is given each year by a member of the University of Chicago faculty to welcome the entering college class. It is delivered in the University’s Rockefeller Chapel. (A video of Professor Stone’s address can be found here.)
Given the controversy over campus speech codes and the University of Chicago’s open letter to its students, I thought the following remarks would help inform reasoned discussion of the issue of free speech on college campuses. I have added subheadings, hyperlinks, bullets, and photographs to Professor Stone’s text.
Professor Stone is is the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and the author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (W.W. Norton, 2005) and Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion, and Law from America’s Origins to the Twenty-First Century (Liveright, W.W. Norton, Mar 21, 2017).
Welcome to what you will come to know as The University and to the beginning of what I hope and trust will be one of the great adventures of your life. Whenever I think of students arriving here for the first time, I can’t help but recall an incident involving Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
At the time of this incident, Holmes was a very old man, nearing 90 years of age, in the autumn of his very long and very distinguished career as a Justice on the Suprme Court of the United States. On this particular occasion, Holmes was on a train headed north from Washington. He was deeply engrossed in reading a legal brief when the conductor knocked on the door to his compartment. Recognizing Holmes, the conductor respectfully asked for his ticket. Holmes looked in his coat pocket — no ticket. He looked in his vest pocket — no ticket. He reached into his trouser pocket — no ticket. Growing ever more frantic, Holmes began rummaging desperately through his briefcase — still no ticket.
At this point, the conductor, trying to calm Holmes, said “Never mind, Mr. Justice. It’s really not a problem. When you find the ticket, just mail it in to the company.” To which Holmes exploded: “You dolt! I don’t give a damn about your ticket, I just want to know where the hell I’m supposed to be going!”
In your first days on this campus, you will likely feel a bit like Justice Holmes — you will want to know where the hell you’re supposed to be going. My task this evening is to offer at least some sense of direction.
[A True Story about Rebels, circa 1918]
I should like to begin by telling you a bit about my world. It is the world of the law. More specifically, it is the world of constitutional law. Law is about stories. It is about real people involved in real disputes with real consequences. So, I shall tell you a story.
This story begins during World War I. As you may or may not know, World War I was not a particularly popular war with the American people, whose sympathies were divided. Many Americans vigorously opposed the Wilson administration’s decision to intervene in the conflict that was then raging in Europe, arguing that our intervention was both unwise and immoral.
Not surprisingly, such opposition did not sit well with the government. In 1917 Attorney General Thomas Gregory, attacking the loyalty of war opponents, declared: “May God have mercy on them, for they can expect none from . . . an avenging government.”
Gregory wasn’t kidding about the “avenging” government. In 1918, Congress enacted the Sedition Act, which made it a crime for any person to utter “any disloyal, . . . scurrilous, or abusive language intended to cause contempt . . . for the . . . government of the United States, the Constitution, or the flag.” True to the Attorney General’s threat, federal authorities launched more than 2,000 prosecutions against individuals who wrote or spoke against the war or the draft.
One such prosecution involved five young, Russian-Jewish emigrants who were roughly your age at the time. In the summer of 1918, the United States sent a contingent of marines to Vladivostok in Russia. Concerned that this was the first step of an American effort to crush the Russian Revolution, these five self-proclaimed socialists threw several thousand copies of each of two leaflets — one in English, the other in Yiddish — from several rooftops on the lower east side of New York City.
The leaflets, which were boldly signed “The Rebels,” were addressed to other Russian emigrants. After stating that the Rebels hated “German militarism,” they warned those who worked in ammunition factories that they were “producing bullets, bayonets and cannon to murder not only the Germans, but also your dearest, your best, who are in Russia and are fighting for their freedom.”
The “Rebels” were immediately arrested by the military police. After a controversial trial, they were convicted of violating the Sedition Act of 1918. The trial judge, disgusted by their behavior and their beliefs, sentenced the Rebels to terms ranging up to twenty years in prison.
The Rebels appealed their convictions to the Supreme Court of the United States, claiming that their convictions violated the First Amendment, which guarantees that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” In Abrams v. United States, the Supreme Court, in a seven-to-two decision, rejected this claim and upheld the convictions. For the majority of the Court, this was an easy case. Because the natural tendency of the defendants’ speech was to generate opposition to the war, it was not within “the freedom of speech” protected by the Constitution.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the same Justice Holmes who some years later was to lose his railway ticket, dissented. Holmes’s dissenting opinion in Abrams is worth reading, for it remains one of the most eloquent statements ever written by a Justice of the Supreme Court about the freedom of expression.
Holmes wrote: “Persecution for the expression of opinion seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises . . . and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally [want to] sweep away all opposition. . . . But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe . . . that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”
Holmes therefore concluded that “we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression” even of “opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten” compelling government interests that an immediate check is necessary to save the nation.
I first read this passage, written almost a century ago, when I was a law student at this University, almost half-a-century ago. It has engaged my energy and curiosity ever since. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that it was my puzzling over this passage under the probing tutelage of my law school professor Harry Kalven that, for better or worse, put me on the path to my career and, indeed, to where I stand before you this evening.
[The Aims of Education]
But now I must change direction, for this is not to be a discourse on the First Amendment. It is, rather, to be a talk about the aims of education. Happily, these are not unrelated subjects. To the contrary, the longer I have puzzled over the meaning of free expression, and the longer I have thought about education, the more the two seem to me to converge. Indeed, neither really is worth all that much without the other. And, with that in mind, I would like to turn to what I see as the intersection of free expression and education, and to the subject of academic freedom, for it is at this intersection that we will find the most fundamental values of the world you are about to enter.
I hope to accomplish three things in this part of my talk:
- First, I will trace briefly for you the history of academic freedom, for it is only by understanding where we have been that we can appreciate — in both senses of the word — where we are today.
- Second, I will talk a bit about this University and about the special role it has played in the struggle to establish and to preserve academic freedom.
- And third, I will offer some thoughts about what all this means for you and about the responsibilities that we today bear in common.
It is important to understand that, like the freedom of speech, academic freedom is not a law of nature. It does not exist of its own force. It is always vulnerable, and should never be taken for granted. Indeed, until well into the 19th century, real freedom of thought was neither practiced nor professed in American universities.
To the contrary, any real freedom of inquiry or expression in American colleges in this era was smothered by the dominance of religion and by the prevailing theory of “doctrinal moralism,” which assumed that the worth of an idea must be judged by what the institution’s leaders declared its moral value to be. Thus, through the first half of the nineteenth century American colleges squelched any notion of free and open discussion or intellectual curiosity. Any student or faculty member who dared argue, for example, that women were equal to men, that blacks were equal to whites, or that homosexuality was not immoral would surely be expelled or fired without hesitation.
Similarly, through the first half of the nineteenth century, as the nation moved towards Civil War, any professor or student in the North who openly defended slavery, or any professor or student in the South who openly challenged slavery, could readily be dismissed, disciplined, or expelled. When a professor at the University of North Carolina expressed sympathy for the 1856 Republican presidential candidate, the students burned him in effigy and he was dismissed by the trustees. When a professor at Franklin College in Pennsylvania admitted he was not an abolitionist, he was promptly fired.
Several decades later, a furious battle arose over Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, with traditionalists charging not only that Darwin was wrong, but also that his beliefs were dangerous, immoral, and ungodly. As a consequence of the furious battle in the academy over evolution, new academic goals came to be embraced.
For the first time, to criticize, as well as to preserve, traditional moral values and understandings became an accepted function of higher education, and by 1892 William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, could boldly assert: “When for any reason the administration of a university attempts to dislodge a professor or punish a student because of his political or religious sentiments “at that moment the institution has ceased to be a university.”
But despite such noble sentiments, the battle for academic freedom has been a continuing and fiercely contentious one. In the closing years of the 19th century, for example, businessmen who had accumulated vast industrial wealth began to support universities on an unprecedented scale. But that support was not without strings, and during this era professors who offended wealthy donors by criticizing their business practices were dismissed from such leading universities as Cornell and Stanford.
Then, during the World War I, patriotic zealots persecuted and, as we have seen, even prosecuted those who questioned the wisdom or morality of the war. In the face of such outrage, universities collapsed almost completely in their defense of academic freedom. Students and professors were systematically expelled and fired at colleges and universities across the nation merely for encouraging a spirit of indifference toward the war.
Similar issues arose again, with a vengeance, during the Cold War in the age of Joseph McCarthy. In the late 1940s and 1950s, most universities excluded those even suspected of Communist sympathies from university life. Yale President Charles Seymour, for example, went so far as to boast that “there will be no witch hunts at Yale, because there will be no witches. We will neither admit nor hire anyone with Communist sympathies.”
As this history demonstrates, the freedom to question, the freedom to challenge, the freedom to inquire is not to be taken for granted. Academic freedom is, in fact, a hard-bought acquisition in an endless struggle to preserve the right of each individual, student and faculty alike, to seek wisdom, knowledge, and truth, free of the censor’s sword.
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