On Tuesday, September 20, 2022, Senior United States Circuit Judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Laurence Silberman '57 visited the Rockefeller Center to deliver a lecture entitled, "Free Political Speech Under Threat: Eisenhower Would be Ashamed." In his conversation with Professor Charles Wheelan '88, Silberman emphasized the importance of conserving free speech on college campuses and beyond.
Silberman spoke broadly to the American polity and entreated them to pledge allegiance to the doctrine of free speech, which he framed as "the penumbra around the First Amendment, which, by itself, only prohibits government control of speech." Silberman views a collective commitment to the institution of free speech as the fundamental pretext for the celebrated American democracy.
He detailed the First Amendment's lengthy and turbulent history; the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were the first of many affronts to these fundamental American freedoms that would continue to percolate during times of national security threats.
Silberman yoked his past appointment as United States Ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1975 to 1977 with his crusade against destructively censored political speech. Silberman recounted how Yugoslavia, in the throes of a communist regime, suffocated free political speech, noting that "community can never trump diverse political views." His determination to protect "even the most provocative and unpleasant" speech of his American peers owes to his engagements with a nation where freedom of political speech "did not exist."
Silberman's talk addressed freedom of speech's synergies with freedom of the press from the First Amendment's inception, calling the former "a necessary corollary to freedom of the press." In an age where he feels academic institutions and related enterprises stifle free speech, Silberman's lecture summarized the curbs on the press that he proposes as necessary to construct a forum for political discourse that disseminates facts.
In 1964, the landmark decision in New York Times v. Sullivan set forth the "actual malice" defamation standard, which requires that a public figure prove a news outlet published libelous statements with knowledge of their falsity to win in libel cases. In March of 2021, in his decision regarding a case entitled Tah v. Global Witness Publishing, which was based on the same legal premise as the precedent case, Silberman urged the Supreme Court to revisit the "actual malice" defamation standard, saying it afforded the press too much legal immunity.
Speaking to critics who pointed to his perceived oscillations between legal permissiveness and stringency as hypocritical, Silberman defended his position on Tuesday. "A free press does not mean special immunization from accountability," Silberman posited, then adding that "a free press is not necessarily an all-powerful press."
Turning to college campuses, Silberman decried recent incidents at Yale Law School, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Harvard University, where administrations, students, and professors clashed over acceptable expressions of free speech. Highlighting Dartmouth's recent controversies over the College's decision to move an event scheduled with conservative pundit Andy Ngo online due to indeterminate threats of disruption, Silberman accused Dartmouth of aligning "itself with those who wish to silence speech by canceling the event." He added that more draconian measures to discipline students who show willful disregard for diversity of thought on their college campuses might obviate the recurrence of such events.
When Wheelan asked Silberman where he thought affirmative action was headed, Silberman gestured to the likelihood that landmark decisions like Grutter v. Bollinger, which was decided in 2003, may be overturned. Silberman added that "it is likely the Supreme Court will overrule the First Circuit in the [Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College] case," based on the fact that agreed to hear it at all; the aforementioned is set to be heard on October 31, 2022.
On the role he expects Dartmouth students to play in navigating the exercise of the First Amendment on college campuses, Silberman left no room for interpretation. His resounding hope is that "Dartmouth students on both sides of the political spectrum will stand up for the freedom of expression." Silberman then added that he "expect[s] nothing less," of students at his alma mater, which garnered smiles from his many classmates from the Class of 1957 who attended the event.
You can view the video of the lecture here.