“Freedom of Speech and the Modern University” is the title of this year’s Charles W. Knowlton Law & Liberal Arts Lecture at the University of South Carolina School of Law. It will be delivered by Robert Post, dean of Yale Law School, on March 23 at 5 p.m., and could not be more timely, as issues surrounding academic freedom have increasingly impacted higher education around the nation, and right here in South Carolina.
In February 2014, the University of South Carolina, USC Upstate, and the College of Charleston were at risk of losing state funding because of certain textbooks and courses. In 2016, two professors at Clemson University were among more than 200 across the nation who were put on the “Professor Watchlist,” which says it names instructors who “advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” And more recently, faculty and staff at the College of Charleston have grappled with where the line between freedom of speech and being a respectful instructor blur.
After the 2016 election, the school’s provost and vice president of academic affairs, Brian McGee, reported several complaints from students who had “perceived that election discussions in a class meeting were not relevant to course content, were inappropriately one-sided, or were crudely partisan.” Following those reports, the school’s president, Glenn McConnell, enacted a new online presence that would “offer students a way to express their concerns, as well as provide faculty, staff, and administrators an excellent tool for improvement.”
But what startled faculty was the quickness at which the school had reacted to student’s complaints without stopping to check their validity. Professors wondered what role the complaints would play in the promotion and tenure of faculty. It also sparked a discussion state-wide about when and how to teach subjects that are innately political.
In a January article in the Charleston City Paper, Professor W. Scott Poole said, “In my class today, we are reading a section of a book that talks about the pro-Nazi ‘American First’ movement in the 1930s represented by Charles Lindbergh. I would be remiss as a teacher if I did not point out that this phrase was used in [President Trump’s Inaugural Address] as a kind of mantra. Is this crudely partisan or am I simply stating a historical fact for my students to then discuss and analyze?”
Put another way, if fact is couched as opinion, how does one teach without bias, and how does one learn without discrimination? In a deeply divided nation and an era of “alternative facts,” those types of questions are being asked even more frequently by students and professors alike.
For Post, the answers go all the way back to 1791, when the First Amendment was ratified. It created a culture that enjoyed and encouraged freedom of speech, and until the 1930s, courts had little to no role in protecting those rights. But as World War I began, judges had to rethink their role as freedom of speech transitioned into an “organized sway of public opinion.”
Post is an expert of constitutional law, First Amendment rights, legal history, and equal protection. Before his time as dean and professor at Yale Law, he taught at the University of California, Berkley School of Law. He has written and edited numerous books, including Citizens Divided: A Constitutional Theory of Campaign Finance Reform. Much of his knowledge has been learned over a career spent on college campuses, where discussions about freedom of speech frequently arise.
In his lecture, Post will explore the growth of the First Amendment from the perspective of the law, as well as practical application as an educator, and a student. He looks to examine the challenge between freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and why more than ever, free speech on college campuses should be preserved, allowing schools to exist as the “marketplace of ideas.”
The lecture is free and open to the public.