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A Report From the Frontlines of the Free Speech Wars

By Danielle Allen

Can we save free speech from current attacks?

In March, my name and photo were posted at Professor Watchlist. The site announces: “students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the…names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” In my case, the website claims, “She said that the rise of Donald Trump is just like the rise of Hitler.” The website links to a February 2016 op-ed that I wrote as a Washington Post contributing columnist.

I wrote: “Like any number of us raised in the late 20th century, I have spent my life perplexed about exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany. Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I now understand. Leave aside whether a direct comparison of Trump to Hitler is accurate. That is not my point. My point rather is about how a demagogic opportunist can exploit a divided country.”

The site provides no documentation of my having made arguments comparing Trump to Hitler in the classroom—because there is none. I have never made such a comparison in class, not even in the attenuated form in my opinion piece.

I have three distinctive public roles: professor, author and opinion columnist, and engaged citizen. Each role has distinct responsibilities and provides different fora for expression. As a professor, I believe my job is to educate students in the areas of my scholarly expertise and to focus class on the subject at hand, not the day’s political issues. As an opinion columnist, I apply my expertise directly to the issues of our time, hoping to shed light. As an engaged citizen, I pursue political outcomes that best align with my considered assessment of the public interest. Across all these roles, I seek to discern and express the truth, while also embracing humility about human fallibility.

I teach across historical and contemporary topics. As I do, I talk a lot about democracy and, yes, argue for egalitarian accounts of democratic ideals. I also present other, competing views and invite students to make judgments. For instance, I criticize Plato’s anti-egalitarian positions but do my best to offer the strongest possible account of his position. I aspire to equip students to ask meaningful questions, to understand evidence and what makes a good argument, and to take responsibility for making their own judgments about hard questions. I strongly distinguish values-based analysis from partisan deliberation and never advocate partisan positions in class.

I treasure academic freedom but also believe that teachers should avoid politicizing the classroom. To my mind, full-throated political engagement belongs on op-ed pages and in the hard work of citizenship. That said, faculty members should not be “watchlisted” if they make other judgments than mine about how to deploy academic freedom.

My watchlisting did not, of course, end with the website. Site founder, Charlie Kirk, appeared with Tucker Carlson on Fox News to highlight his postings. Alongside a broadcast of my photo, Kirk said this: “She wrote an op-ed. She made a very flawed argument. She teaches this in class. That the rise of Donald Trump can be directly paralleled to the rise of Adolf Hitler. This is a Harvard Professor. She teaches that we can learn a lot from this rise of Donald Trump and this populist rise because actually it is very similar to that of Adolf Hitler.”

I don’t think Kirk actually knows anything about what I teach. His claim is simply false. So what’s he up to? Why watchlist me in 2017 for a February 2016 article?

Here’s my best guess. As an engaged citizen, I have served for the past year on the Advisory Board to the U.S. Programs branch of the Open Society Foundations, George Soros’ philanthropic initiative. OSF works in support of areas like investigative journalism and voting rights, criminal justice reform and immigration policy. The organization is separate from Soros’ personal political donations. In March, I agreed to chair that advisory board. The Watchlist posting and Fox segment appeared shortly after the announcement.

Kirk’s site and Carlson’s former blog, the Daily Caller, are both reported to have been funded by conservative activist and multimillionaire Foster Friess, and Kirk claims to be a Trump administration advisor on matters of concern to millennials.

The hit on me was a punch at Soros, I believe.

Whatever the motive, the posting and broadcast brought me vile emails, tweets, and the following two anonymous voicemails:

“Hey, you f*****g c**t, you. Professor Watchlist b***h.”

“Yeah, yeah, Danielle. You’re a lowlife f*****g n****r motherf*****g c**t, you know that? Saying what you say about Trump. You f*****g n****r b***h. F*****g scum. I hope he pisses on your grave some day. Ah, you’ll outlive him but maybe his kid will piss on your f*****g grave and shit on it.”

Free speech is under threat. In early March, I wrote an op-ed criticizing Middlebury protesters and praising Charles Murray for courage. I believe that bad arguments should be defeated with better ones, not shut down by violent protest or blocked with profanity and ad hominem attacks. At Harvard, a student group has sprung up to sponsor controversial speakers and to challenge spreading protest dynamics. I concur with the need to reclaim space for free speech. And free speech also needs protection from assaults from the right. Both sides have developed dangerous tactics for silencing those who disagree with them.

What’s the antidote? Surely the truth—steadily, objectively, decently conveyed.

Danielle S. Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

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