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National Review
National Review
9 Sep 2023
Matthew Wilson

NextImg:The ACLU’s Free-Speech Sophistry Comes to Princeton

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE {O} n August 29, Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke alongside Princeton University president Christopher Eisgruber at a mandatory freshman-orientation event ostensibly meant to highlight the university’s commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom. More than 1,000 Princeton freshmen were required to attend this event as a part of their regular sequence of orientation activities; I was there as an undergraduate academic adviser for freshmen and out of my own personal curiosity.

In a word, the event’s content was an embarrassment. A new class of Princeton students were subject to an hour-long, highly ideological exhortation by Romero, who repeatedly urged them to embrace progressive ideas and badly misrepresented the importance of free speech by rooting its value in its ability to advance socially progressive causes.

Today’s enemies of free speech and civil liberties, Romero told Princeton freshmen, are those who deny the “right to gender-affirming health care,” those “attacking critical race theory,” and proponents of Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law. According to Romero, these are the real “freedom-of-expression issues” of our day — the work of right-wing villains who want our society to “go back to the medieval period.”

At various points during the event, Romero derided former president Bill Clinton as a “homophobe” for signing the Defense of Marriage Act into law, announced that “a major way” he “got into Princeton” was affirmative action, and proclaimed that the ACLU was “intersectional before we knew the word ‘intersectional.’” He also bragged — to cheers and applause from students — about the ACLU’s record, under his leadership, of “suing the Trump administration 434 times.” When Eisgruber asked him about his position on “cancel culture,” Romero declined to offer an unqualified repudiation, instead telling students that there is “an element of the response of cancel culture” that is “positive” because “we shouldn’t put up with,” among other things, oppressive structures of “heteronormativity” and “the patriarchy that’s just bludgeoning people’s gender identities.”

Where even to begin? Romero’s purported defense of free speech was chock-full of pure sophistry and was altogether tainted by his naked ideological commitments. In associating the value of free speech with its perceived ability to serve his progressive social agenda, Romero butchered the real importance of preserving a robust free-speech culture on college campuses. Free speech is indeed an instrument — not, as Romero repeatedly suggested, to conveniently enshrine the dogmas and doctrines of social progressivism, but to facilitate the noble ends of truth-seeking scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

Interestingly, the university’s official press release about the event excluded all mention of Romero’s ideologically charged statements, ad hominem insults, and blatant political advocacy. The release slyly, and dishonestly, insinuated that Romero’s position on cancel culture was uniformly negative. It omitted his efforts to associate the value of free speech with its utility to further progressive causes. At the same time, the university in the release shamelessly claimed that “Princeton continues to support a culture of free expression on campus” — when just last year a distinguished professor was subject to a highly politicized disciplinary process and ultimately fired after campus activists demanded that he be punished for his unpopular views. And, as it stands, nothing even remotely resembling a “culture of free expression” persists among Princeton students.

Urging students to cancel “heteronormativity” and push back against “homophobes” (in other words: against anyone whose deeply held moral or religious beliefs preclude them from endorsing Romero’s secular progressive positions on gender and sexuality) does nothing to advance or promote Princeton’s “fundamental commitment” to “the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” On the contrary, such rhetoric plainly encourages self-censorship and ideological conformity — phenomena profoundly antithetical to a campus culture of open discourse and freedom of thought — to take root among students and flourish.

Princeton’s newest class of students should have heard a speech (as was given last year) encouraging them to be truth-seeking scholars in the fullest sense — willing to have their most fundamental convictions challenged, trading in reasons and evidence rather than dogmatism and demagoguery, and committed to the pursuit of truth above all else. Instead, they witnessed the ramblings of the ACLU’s activist in chief, so blinded by ideology that he managed to transform what was meant to be a conversation on the importance of free speech into a lecture on the catechism of secular progressivism.

The university’s administration should be ashamed that its mandatory orientation event on free speech and academic freedom was far closer to a call to action for the same progressive ideologues whose behavior and rhetoric are largely to blame for the proliferation of anti-free-speech attitudes on campuses like Princeton’s. If the new students of today are to become the leaders of tomorrow, we should all pray that they learn the real (and profoundly unideological) value of free speech — and that they will steer clear of the suffocating dogmatism offered to them by the likes of the ACLU’s Anthony Romero.