“We are tired.” Those three words sum up a great deal of the anti-free speech movement growing on our campuses. Students and faculty have grown tired of free speech. Opposing views are now treated as threats and intolerable for students. A case in point is the effort by half of the law students at Duke to ban Helen Alvaré, a George Mason University law professor, from appearing on a virtual panel discussion about family law. The letter is both well-written and chilling in its call for censorship on campus. It dismisses any notion of free speech protection in allowing dissenting views to be heard on campus. Indeed, it does not even consider such values worthy of discussion. Instead, the students insist that the mere ability of an academic to speak on a panel is an endorsement of her views and a threat to current and future Duke law students.The panel is on “putting children first in family law”, which is the focus of Alvaré’s 2017 book. She has been controversial due to her writings on same sex marriage and LGBTQ rights. Her 2012 friend-of-the-court brief in U.S. v. Windsor that argued for the state’s “legitimate” interest in “singling out” opposite-sex marriage for protection and that the expansion of marriage to include same-sex couples “ignores children and society.”As someone who supported same-sex marriage for decades, I strongly disagree with those views. However, many hold such views as did most of our elected officials at one time from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama. These are questions that are tied to deeply-held religious, social, and legal views. Alvaré has written extensively on those issues and is widely cited in the debate over same-sex marriage. They are the type of issues that universities once valued as subjects for debate and discussion.
The letter from a sizable percentage of the Duke law student population demands that Dean Kerry Abrams “remove” Alvaré from the event or “cancel the event entirely.”
They cite her “unapologetic anti-LGBTQ+-rights views,” including opposing same-sex marriage and what they claim is her support for conversion therapy. I have not been able to confirm all of these views and the letter does not cite sources on the conversion claim. The letter refers to Alvaré as “a speaker who, in the least, entertains conversations of conversation therapy.” However, it does not matter to the free speech question. Alvaré is an intellectual who holds controversial views for many at Duke. The solution is to engage her in substantive exchanges, not try to silence her so others cannot hear her views.
The students insist that even allowing dissenting ideas to be voiced on campus is an effective endorsement of those views:
When we ask a speaker to come to Duke, we are giving that person space and license to express their views on a particular subject—and by so doing, we are implicitly signaling our willingness to tolerate or our approval of those views. By hosting a speaker who, in the least, entertains conversations of conversation therapy for LGBTQ+ persons and who views same-sex couples as less capable of raising children, Duke is signaling at least a willingness to engage in those discussions and at worst, a tacit endorsement of those opinions. By not condemning injustice, you condone it. And that is the signal Duke will be sending to not only our current LGBTQ+ student body, but to all future potential students applying to Duke as well.
The students insist that allowing Alvaré to speak is a rejection of “diversity, equality and tolerance” and “undermines those professed values” of the school. What the students conspicuously omit is tolerance for other views and free speech as values. Indeed, in seeking to shutdown a speaker, the students do not even mention free speech, let alone address the implications of their actions for intellectual freedom and discourse. Instead, they insist that barring a speaker with opposing views would show that “our diversity was not just tolerated, but celebrated.” (Yet, not intellectual diversity) That, with free speech, would be eviscerated by students who want to prevent others from hearing opposing views.
The controversy is ironic for Duke which was founded by religious groups and given the motto Eruditio et Religio (Knowledge and Faith). Many alumni and current faculty and students hold opposing moral and legal views on these views. A true celebration of intellectual diversity is to allow such views to be voiced and debated. The greatest danger to Duke is not hearing the views of Professor Alvaré but silencing such views. Being “tired” of free speech is no license to deny it.