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Freedom under fire

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One of the bedrock American freedoms — one’s right to speak freely – isn’t an exclusively American concept dreamed up by the founding fathers in the late 1700s. It dates at least as far back as classical Greece, where it was referred to as parrhesia – a cornerstone of Athenian democracy in the 4th century BC.

It’s interesting that parrhesia – cherished by ancient Greeks and contemporary Americans alike — is now under fire in 21st century Alabama, on the campuses of the University of Alabama, themselves descended from the academy of Plato, where the free exchange of ideas shaped intellectual thought.

Last week, the Alabama Supreme Court heard arguments in a case brought against the University system’s free speech areas that limit speech activities to specific areas of campus.

In defending the university’s stance, its lawyers described the plaintiff’s case with curious use of the German phrase sturm und drang with its hint of the sinister, asking the court to protect the university against “anarchy and mob rule.”

It’s not difficult to imagine that “anarchy and mob rule” would more likely result not from free speech, but the suppression of it.

The University of Alabama System isn’t alone in its quest to limit students’ right to free speech to meticulously chosen corrals on its campuses. Other universities have enacted similar rules. All of them are wrongheaded.

The state Supreme Court, in considering the case of free speech zones on Alabama campuses, should see through the oppressive intent of free speech zones and side with the plaintiffs’ right to expression without geographical restraint.

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