In New York Times guest essay, Brown president asserts danger of threats to free expression

In an essay titled ‘The gravest threats to campus speech come from the state, not the students,’ Christina H. Paxson says those who try to ban the advancement of knowledge will find themselves ‘on the wrong side of history.’

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In a New York Times guest essay, Brown University President Christina H. Paxson argues for the critical importance of maintaining the free exchange of knowledge amid new legislative efforts that would affect what tens of millions of students will be able to learn.

Christina H. Paxson
Brown University President Christina H. Paxson

The opinion essay, titled “The gravest threats to campus speech come from the state, not the students,” was published on Friday, April 21.

Paxson argues that recent efforts across the nation to ban books and limit teaching of certain subjects are just as dangerous and misguided as the blacklisting campaigns of McCarthyism, efforts to outlaw teaching of evolution, and even dating back to imprisoning Galileo because he introduced new ideas about the universe.

A frequent public voice on issues of academic freedom and freedom of expression, Paxson makes the case that the proponents of these laws are acting out of political expediency and damaging America’s public educational institutions as well as damaging U.S. democracy. The piece explains the vital role that educational institutions play in testing ideas, and asserts that those who are fundamentally trying to ban the advancement of knowledge will find themselves “on the wrong side of history.”

The guest essay, as published on April 21, 2023, in the New York Times, is included below in full.

The gravest threats to campus speech comes from the state, not the students

America is facing a fundamental threat‌, and it echoes a dark past.

In 1633, Galileo was forced to renounce the “false opinion” that the Earth circled the sun since it collided with the prevailing beliefs of the Catholic Church.

Shortly after publication in 1859, Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was banned from the library of Trinity College, where he had been a student.

And in the early 1950s, during the McCarthy era, many university professors were subject to “loyalty hearings,” and some lost their positions because of defamation campaigns and indiscriminate allegations of Communist leanings.

Each of these episodes of censorship and repression of knowledge reflected the unique social and political tensions of its time. But the proponents of censorship and repression all had one thing in common: they were on the wrong side of history.

The mistakes of the past are being repeated in this country, right now. The state Senate in Texas last week advanced one of three bills aimed at public colleges that would ban diversity, equity and inclusion activities, end tenure, and fire professors accused of indoctrinating their students. Several states, including GeorgiaIdaho and most notably Florida, have passed varying laws making it easier to ban books and limit what American educators can teach.

Dozens of other bills are pending in state legislatures around the country with the promise of affecting what tens of millions of students will or won’t be allowed to learn, and exerting a chilling effect on educators who fear for their jobs. The recent actions take aim at teaching about so-called “divisive concepts,” including the history of slavery in America and its legacy in modern times, structural racism, evolving concepts of gender identity, sexuality and L.G.B.T.Q. issues, and anything to do with diversity, however defined. ‌They are just as dangerous and misguided as attempts to outlaw the teaching of evolution, or Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of people for their political beliefs.

Like their forebears, the proponents of these laws are on the wrong side of history. They are acting out of political expediency, ‌exploiting convenient political wedge issues. They are mounting a direct and dangerous attack on America’s longstanding commitment to free expression, democracy and education. Legislating toward a future where the state decrees what ideas may be taught and debated upends a bedrock principle of this country.

I am the president of a private, nonprofit university in Rhode Island, a state founded on the values of freedom and tolerance. Brown University is not immediately threatened by new or pending laws affecting public education in Arizona, Florida, Texas, or the numerous other states where similar legislation has been introduced. I am free to speak against what’s happening, but the educational leaders in the states in question, particularly those at the helm of public institutions, are in very different positions. The new laws censor their voices as well as those of their faculty and students.

Proponents of these laws attempt to justify them by repeating claims that universities are places where political correctness runs rampant and students are intolerant of alternative viewpoints. In my experience, these problems are much less pervasive than media coverage suggests, but they do exist. Students should not ‌violate university policies and ‌shout down speakers they don’t agree with. And peer pressure, like cancel culture in the larger world, is unfortunate and sometimes suppresses debate. Universities ‌work hard to prevent and address these problems. We need to support‌ open inquiry and debate both inside and outside of classrooms.

But ‌‌it is ludicrous to claim that state-sponsored censorship — which carries the full force of the government and can even entail criminal penalties — is justified by student misconduct or peer pressure.

The ironic truth is that laws that prohibit the teaching of “divisive concepts” are themselves attempts to indoctrinate students into seeing the world through one lens. This is exactly the opposite of what colleges and universities should do. College campuses are a place for controversial issues and emerging ideas to be taught, discussed and debated. This is how we fulfill our missions of advancing knowledge and understanding in a democratic society.

The very project of democracy means bringing together people who have different values and objectives, and helping them find a way to work toward common goals. This project is messy but essential. If we can’t get it right on college campuses, then where?

Consider that, over the centuries, students across this country have been free to confront controversial issues such as the abolition of slavery, women’s rights and the involvement of the U.S. in military actions around the world. We should be thankful that‌‌ no limits or laws were in place to prevent students from considering such important questions.

One hundred years from now, the ideas and theories about American history, race and gender that are currently being suppressed may survive, or not. No one reading this column will be alive to know the answer, any more than Galileo knew if his belief that positioned the sun as the center of the universe would be accepted in the centuries ahead.

I hope that in his years of house arrest, ending only in his death, Galileo understood and took comfort in the truth that ideas survive or perish after having been subject to rigorous and open intellectual inquiry. In the long run, misguided laws that censor ideas and suppress the advancement of knowledge fail, and their architects fail with them.

Christina H. Paxson is the president of Brown University and a frequent public voice on issues of academic freedom and freedom of expression.