Thomas Jefferson and the University of California

In his first inaugural address Thomas Jefferson uttered the most immortal words in American history regarding freedom of expression: “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.”

Error of opinion, unreasoned arguments, all may be safely tolerated in a republic where a prevailing and unshakable faith in freedom may combat it. This was Jefferson’s faith in the common man and one fairly imagines Thomas Paine was our third president’s ghost writer, save that we have Jefferson’s scrip. Tom Paine’s influence is certainly there, and it’s still with us.

“Truth is great” said Jefferson, “and will prevail if left to herself…) (See Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Virginia, 1785). Truth, he said, has nothing to fear “from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them…”

Recently the State of California proposed the adoption of regulations designed to govern speech on the campuses of its public colleges and universities. Called “principles against intolerance” the measure is being debated this week at a meeting of California’s Board of Regents on the campus of UC Irvine.

According to the LA Times: “The statement would condemn bias, violence and hate speech based on race, ethnicity, religion, citizenship, sex or sexual orientation while also attempting to protect free speech on campuses.”

California’s Regents and academic administrators have clearly lost faith in Jefferson’s faith that free argument and debate will always trump fearful ideas when permitted freely to contradict them.

What’s especially troubling about the LA Times article is the suggestion that student groups are in no small measure leading the fight to silence people they don’t like. Quote:

“Some Jewish groups want UC to formally adopt a U.S. State Department definition of anti-Semitism, which includes the demonization of Israel and denials of that nation’s right to exist.

Those groups say that anti-Israel protests and activism on UC campuses sometimes cross the line into anti-Semitism and create a hostile environment for Jewish students.”

One may fair sympathize with Jewish groups (as I do) but I also support the rights of others to say what they will. “Truth has nothing to fear from conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons.”

California’s Regents suggest that they will protect free speech on campuses—which is to say, that hateful or unpopular ideas can presumably be the subject of academic inquiry.

In this model, academic inquiry leaves the agora and enters laboratories. (Metaphorically speaking.) Another way to think of this is to imagine that within the sequestered classroom free argument and debate will carry on when it’s been forbidden in the public sphere.

Jefferson understood the public sphere is everywhere. Anything else is essentially a prescription for tyranny.

I have a dog in this hunt. I’m blind, a member as I like to say, of a historically marginalized group.

Throughout my sojourn on this earth I’ve been bullied. In college a rather noxious fellow who lived across the hall from me in our freshman dormitory used to poke me in the chest and call me “blindo”. One day, I went to the local fish market and bought a two foot long dead eel. When my tormentor was taking a shower, I deftly dropped it over the shower curtain. I can still hear his screams. I can still “see” his embarrassment when he bolted naked into the larger room where he was greeted by every student who lived on our floor.

He never called me “blindo” again.

Intolerance is ugly. It’s hurtful. The “N” word and the “R” word; the militant distrust of partisans of every stripe—distrust which becomes malevolent and strident—all of these are to be abjured.

They cannot be abjured by legislation. As Jefferson fully understood.