Noor Chafouk, Daily Pennsylvanian, September 21, 2023
The recent controversy surrounding Amy Wax intertwined with the community uproar over Palestine Writes’ choice of speakers provokes a complex re-evaluation of free speech within educational institutions. These are not merely a litmus test for ideological allegiances, but moments for serious reflection on the role of academic freedom in an increasingly interconnected and pluralistic world.
When Wax unfurls her words, there is no doubt a seethingly controversial, and what many consider an extremist sentiment. This has not only ignited feedback and debate in Penn extremities, but has resounded nationwide. The Harvard Crimson discussed the necessity for her to be removed from her position, representing the predominant narrative towards her words. Others have noted that she is adhering to the breaches of freedom of speech in academia since her opinions are protected under this premise.
There is growing tension at the intersection of academic philosophy and public discourse, especially in the era of heightened political polarization. Proponents, or I could even say absolutists, of freedom of speech believe this is fortifying a sense of resurgence in the right of expression in schools. Silencing her, in their point of view, would be a violation of the principles that academia stands on: the free and unfettered exchange of ideas, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. They feel silenced by this restriction on what can be said in scholarly spaces, and believe this is a refreshing rebuttal. Penn’s ranking as second-to-last in terms of freedom of speech out of 248 schools doesn’t hurt their argument (hey, at least we beat Harvard). This particularly resonates with the decline in acceptance of conservative speakers on campus.
How about if we forget about the context of our polarized world, and particularly this situation itself, and focus on the history and foundation of freedom of speech as a whole?
The First Amendment is not an indiscriminate shield to defend every kind of expression. Whilst it historically sprouted the revolution against tyrannical structures that limited expression, this does not inextricably tie to supporting a white-only ideology, or tangibly discriminatory themes. When does protecting someone’s words come first, and before, protecting the sentient existence of another being? The Constitution protects citizens from governmental interference in their speech, but it does not necessarily protect a professor from facing consequences at her place of employment, especially when that employment is at an educational institution shaping the minds of future leaders and speakers.
What is worth examining here is the academic infrastructure that either silences or amplifies these voices. Let’s think about “fighting words” — although Wax’s invocations do not adhere in absolute to its legal criteria, they are subject to scrutiny and potential institutional action. And while these inflammatory words may not directly incite imminent, lawless action, giving the space and honor to a white supremacist gives it life and prolongs its existence in our country.
Yes, academia needs controversial ideas to provoke thought, but it also demands rigorous scrutiny to filter out hate speech and prejudice. To assume that all and every form of speech must be protected assumes that we live in, and come from, a world devoid of historical systemic subjugation. The paradox is sharp and glaring: the very claim to free speech, in this case, would be used to perpetuate ideas that inherently demean and marginalize certain groups, thereby undermining the spirit of inclusive debate and dialogue. Inviting Jared Taylor — a known white supremacist — twice to a class is an affront to the educational mission as a whole. He is not an academic controversialist whose work could question dominant notions; rather, he promotes contentious beliefs opposed to academic ethics, research, and ideals.
More importantly, this isn’t just about Penn. It’s about maintaining the credibility and integrity of academic institutions everywhere. There is a need, now more than ever, to value the credibility of scholarship and its discourse in universities. Just like you wouldn’t invite a flat earther to a NASA convention, there should be no platform for spreading the diaspora of white nationalism or nativist groups, or any sort of flagrant hate speech. Without intellectual integrity, there is no refuge from ignorance. Schools, especially schools that pride themselves in the quality of their education, cannot be failing us now and feeding into the era of extreme polarization we have become victims to.