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Free Speech

I want to share Bloomberg's article about free speech in the Wall Street Journal. 

Republican Censorship Goes for Woke

Ron DeSantis’s efforts to control educational and corporate speech are no better than the left’s.

By Michael R. Bloomberg

Republicans often rightly complain that college campuses are hostile to the free exchange of ideas. Speakers over the past decade have regularly been disinvited, shouted down and even physically attacked by student activists unwilling to entertain different ideas and perspectives. This behavior is anathema to a university’s mission and deeply damaging to our nation.

Unfortunately, instead of taking a principled stand for free speech, many Republicans are now saying: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Consider Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed a bill that as of July 1 bars professors from expressing any view in a classroom that “espouses, promotes, [or] advances” anything that could make students feel guilty about history, as it relates to race and gender. The bill is known as the Stop Woke Act, short for Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees, and its principal target is critical race theory, which has become a bugaboo on the right and is divisive on the left.

Free inquiry and discourse—including professing ideas and beliefs—lie at the heart of higher education and democratic society. In both the sciences and humanities, rigorous debates based on facts, data and reason allow ideas and theories to be evaluated and amended, adopted and discarded, in ways that promote understanding, advance knowledge and teach responsible citizenship.

Yet Florida’s law abandons this ideal by seeking to proscribe what professors can say on particular topics. Universities could be held liable, for example, if a professor expresses support for affirmative action. Remember when Republicans believed in limiting tort laws, rather than expanding them?

The law also applies to companies, as though government should be micromanaging the curriculum of diversity-and-inclusion programs. Similar liability laws have made their way through Republican legislatures in Idaho, Iowa and North Dakota this year, with more potentially on the way. What happened to Republican support for free enterprise?

The way to address controversial theories isn’t by banning professors or business leaders from espousing them to students and workers—after all, government censorship of ideas often helps them gain popularity. Instead, it’s to allow citizens to give them a free airing, where they can be openly debated. That’s the American way, and the future of the country rests in no small part on the commitment of higher-education leaders to defending it.

I’ve criticized both the left and right for failing to uphold the principles of free expression over the years. In New York’s City Hall, I strongly defended a Brooklyn university when it sponsored a speech by an advocate of the BDS movement, which promotes economic war against the state of Israel through boycotts, divestment and sanctions. I couldn’t disagree more strongly with those in the BDS movement—but I also couldn’t believe more strongly in their right to free speech. I’ve always found that those whose speech we find most objectionable are those whose rights we’re most responsible for defending.

Every generation faces its own bouts with censorship. In my youth, it was Sen. Joe McCarthy’s hunt for communists. I can still vividly remember his questions (“Are you now or have you ever been . . .?”). Today, censorship is coming from both sides of the political aisle, but only one side is writing it into law.

Professors in Florida have sued to block the Stop Woke Act, and let us hope judges will soon strike it down as an abridgment of the First Amendment. Some professors, however, have also urged students to boycott a new state survey meant to gauge whether colleges are hostile to viewpoint diversity. That’s a mistake. Florida’s censorship law is wrong, but it’s a reaction to the very real problem of campus intolerance. The more that students speak out about it—even if anonymously through surveys—the more pressure it puts on administrators to address it.

Higher education is rooted in intellectual exploration. Colleges that don’t expose students to challenging and uncomfortable ideas fail their pupils. The same applies to governments that attempt to block professors from offering their insights or forcing them to teach material as though all theories—like evolution and creationism—should be given equal weight.

The sad irony is that many of the same people who have accused millennial and Gen Z students of being snowflakes—those unable to handle discomforting ideas—are now acting like the most delicate snowflakes of all.

The solution to political repression isn’t more political repression. It’s freedom. Truth has nothing to fear from free speech—on college campuses, or anywhere else.

Mr. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, served as mayor of New York, 2002-13.