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Turley gives Thomas Kerr Lecture on free speech

Jonathan Turley is one of the most cited law professors in the country right now. However, when he came to Carnegie Mellon this Thursday to give the seventh annual Thomas M. Kerr lecture on Law and American Society, he did not focus on a topic that directly pertains to the law; instead, he focused on what he saw as the extralegal suppression of free speech on college campuses.

The event took place in the Lee Gregg Lecture Hall, and the large room was filled almost to capacity, with professors taking an interest in what Professor Turley had to say and students seeking extra credit alike. Turley’s lecture was introduced by Joseph Devine, the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies at Dietrich College for Humanities and Social Sciences and the advisor for the pre-law program, who spoke, as Turley did in his introduction, of the work of Thomas Kerr, the late Carnegie Mellon professor for which the lecture series was named, who was dubbed "Mr. Civil Liberties."

Turley began by discussing what he saw is a grave trend in European laws on how speech can be regulated. He found that European law “looks through the eyes of a person that was insulted,” where American law focuses on the rights of the speaker to speak. He gave examples of this sort of regulation that he found objectionable, from the attempted regulation of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo to Germany's prohibition of Nazi imagery or ideology. This talk came on the heels of a visit by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who spoke to Congress about how the U.S. should follow Europe's lead in regulating false news on the internet. This exchange left Turley incredulous as “virtually every member of Congress [was] wildly applauding” for something that Turley felt amounted to censorship.

The threat to free speech in the United States was less pronounced, Turley found, but “pretty much where [he] think[s] the problem is growing” is in the area of campus free speech. "First, the problem is you," Turley found, before clarifying that he meant not the older members of the audience but the younger people that he felt were part of a generation that took free speech too lightly. He observed that while young people tended to say that they valued free speech, they would rank it lower when they were asked to weigh it against other values, like diversity. "If you put anything that’s not abstract against free speech or civil liberties, we lose."

His opinions are heavily informed by the fact that Turley is a staunch civil libertarian, something which he acknowledges that he is a bit of a "dinosaur" in regards to. One of his primary complaints is that this ideology is increasingly being rejected by young activists. Turley opined that “free speech is now being denounced as a form of oppression.” He, like many free speech absolutists, emphasizes that those who object to the speech being defended, which is often offensive and repugnant, don't understand that "we don’t need free speech to protect popular speech." Instead, the dangers to free speech happen "at the edges" with statements that people find distasteful or offensive.

Turley was asked about many of the hot-button issues of free speech today. While he had previously criticized platforms such as Facebook or Twitter for removing news they deem to be false and users who spread Neo-Nazi ideology, respectively, he found that it was also objectionable for the government to tell platforms what they could and could not remove.

When asked what he thought people on campuses should do to work against what Turley identified as repression of speech, he said that universities should send out letters like the one sent out by the dean of the University of Chicago, telling incoming students that the university would not provide "safe spaces" or shield students from any kind of free speech.

There are a lot of voices who think, like Turley, that suppressing any voices has darker, more insidious implications about free thought and discourse in society. There are also those that think there are some people with ideas so objectionable that giving them a platform to spread these ideas is unthinkable. The debate over speech on campus will doubtlessly be continued to be spurred by sporadic incidents of people trying to stop speakers, and committed civil libertarians like Turley who think that this behavior violates how discourse should be structured.