On Wednesday February 14, Concordia was host to Nadine Strossen. Lawyer, professor, writer, activist and more, Strossen has worn many hats throughout her exemplary career.
Throughout each of these duties, however, Strossen has maintained a common throughline – a passionate advocacy for and defense of the right to free speech.
Strossen served as the president of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1991-2008 and has continued working with the ACLU in various capacities throughout her career.
According to the organization’s website, the ACLU’s mission statement is to “realize the promise of the United States Constitution and expand the reach of its guarantees.”
In addition to influential members like Strossen who defend freedom of speech, the ACLU is also concerned with securing prisoner’s rights, religious freedom and rights for LGBT individuals.
Nearly every defining court case defending free speech which has reached the Supreme Court began from a suit filed by the ACLU, a fact which Strossen came back to multiple times throughout her time speaking.
The event was held in the Barry Auditorium in Grant Center. The tables were filled with students and faculty alike. A large screen hung behind the three on-stage participants, broadcasting the event over Zoom to those unable to attend in person.
Strossen’s attendance was sponsored in collaboration between Concordia’s Lorentzsen Center for Faith and Learning and the Concordia Pre-Law Society. One representative was selected from both organizations to moderate the panel, bringing questions of their own as well as pulling questions from the online chatroom. Dr. Michael Chan represented the Lorentzsen Center, while Dr. Eric Schmidt represented the Pre-Law Society.
As part of her visit to Concordia, Strossen had spoken in Schmidt’s classroom earlier in the day, as well as dining with students the previous night.
In response to a question about where the United States stands in terms of free speech, Strossen quoted Dickens:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” said Strossen.
Strossen made the claim that in terms of legal protections, the United States is in a very secure place when it comes to free speech. However, she feels that culturally we are in a period of great censorship, particularly self-censorship. According to Strossen, people are more frightened now of the reaction they may receive for performing a speech act than in the past.
“What they’re afraid of is peer pressure,” said Strossen. “There’s no first amendment remedy to cancel culture.”
As an example, Strossen mentioned the recent controversy within Hamline University in St. Paul, in which an art history professor showed a classroom an image of the Prophet Muhammad, with preamble and opportunity for students to leave. Strossen argued that the display was a speech act, and not hate speech, and that the subsequent firing of the professor was an unjust violation of the first amendment.
The questions also directed Strossen to comment on 2018’s “cake case,” or Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In this case, Masterpiece Cakeshop had refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple on account of the owner’s religious beliefs.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission argued that this violated the state’s anti-discrimination law, an opinion which was held throughout the courts until its eventual reversal by the Supreme Court. Strossen saw this decision as a misstep, citing that the First Amendment protects citizens from “compelled expression” of ideas they do not agree with.
“Baking a cake is not expression,” said Strossen.
Schmidt asked what Strossen would say to a student who was concerned that this type of free speech advocacy could lead to people doing them harm.
“Most of the speech you’re concerned about is already not protected,” said Strossen, citing the fact that direct threats of violence or targeted harassment fall outside the protection of the First Amendment.
Strossen went on to say that her overall goal in protecting free speech was to resist hatred, which she goes into great detail in her latest book HATE: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship, published in 2018.
In HATE, Strossen makes the case that “hate speech” has no direct legal definition. She sees this loose terminology as a vague term broadly used to censor and avoid certain topics.
“To be sure, campuses and other arenas in our society must strive to be inclusive, to make everyone welcome, especially those who traditionally have been excluded or marginalized,” says Strossen in HATE. “But that inclusivity must also extend to those who voice unpopular ideas, especially on campus, where ideas should be most freely aired, discussed and debated. Encountering ‘unwelcome’ ideas, including those that are hateful and discriminatory, is essential for honing our abilities to analyze, criticize, and refute them.”
Strossen’s visit was done in conjunction with the Lorentzsen Center, whose ongoing theme throughout the 2022-2023 school year is “Building a More Trustworthy World.” This program has invited speakers related to this topic throughout the school year.
All previous speaker sessions are available for viewing on the Concordia College Offutt School of Business YouTube channel.