Professor Rabban to Deliver Hugo L. Black Lecture

Portrait of Prof. David Rabban wearing glasses and a suit jacket.

Longtime Texas Law faculty member David Rabban has been selected to deliver the highly prestigious Hugo L. Black Lecture on Freedom of Expression at Wesleyan University this March 30.

The lecture will be presented at Wesleyan’s Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life and will be moderated by Demetrius Eudell, Wesleyan’s Dean of the Social Sciences. The topic is timely and essential: “The First Amendment Right of Academic Freedom.”

Rabban, who holds the Dahr Jamail, Randall Hage Jamail and Robert Lee Jamail Regents Chair and is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor, is thrilled to have been asked to deliver this year’s Black Lecture—both because of the reputation of venerable series, and because he is a 1971 Wesleyan graduate.

“It is a great honor to be giving the Hugo L. Black Lecture at Wesleyan, particularly as an alumnus,” said Rabban. “The commitment of the Wesleyan faculty and administration to free speech and academic freedom was one of the many things I loved about it when I was a student.”

Rabban is the first Wesleyan alumnus to be honored with an invitation to deliver the annual lecture, which is named in honor of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black and is designed to bring prominent public figures and scholars with experience and expertise in matters related to the First Amendment and freedom of expression to Wesleyan’s campus.

Previous speakers have been academics, jurists, journalists, public intellectuals, and civic leaders and have included such professors as former Texas Law professors Jack Balkin and Keith Whittington, Jelani Cobb, Cass Sunstein, Patricia Williams, and Robert Post; Supreme Court Justices Harry A. Blackmun and Antonin Scalia; former New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse; and past ACLU president Nadine Strossen.

Rabban’s expertise in free speech, higher education and the law, and American legal history is unparalleled. His path-breaking work on free speech in American history includes the books Free Speech in Its Forgotten Years, 1870- 1920 and Law’s History: American Legal Thought and the Transatlantic Turn to History (both published by Cambridge University Press) and his work has appeared in many major law reviews in the United States and abroad.

His next book, on academic freedom and the First Amendment, will be published by Harvard University Press in 2024.

Before joining the Texas Law faculty since 1983, Rabban served for several years as counsel to the American Association of University Professors and was AAUP’s General Counsel from 1998 to 2006, as well as Chair of its Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure from 2006 to 2012.

“David Rabban is an inspired choice for the Hugo Black Lecture,” said Bobby Chesney, the dean of Texas Law and Rabban’s longtime colleague. “I’m truly excited for the students, faculty, and guests at Wesleyan who will get to hear David’s thoughts on this topic. He is a giant in the field of academic freedom and a masterful teacher. I know that this will be a fantastic event.”

For those who wish to attend the 2023 Hugo Black Lecture, Wesleyan is accepting reservations for in person attendance, as well as a webinar viewing option for those who would join remotely.

(Update, April 19: Prof. Rabban’s lecture has now been posted by Wesleyan.)

Ahead of his trip to Middletown this week, we had a chance to speak with Rabban about his talk.

Texas Law: The title of your talk is “The First Amendment Right of Academic Freedom.” Without giving too much away, can you preview for us one or two key historical points, questions or concerns you’ll be touching on in your remarks?

David Rabban: One thing I’ll be pointing out is that issues of academic freedom and free speech at American universities have received widespread attention from the public as well as within universities themselves ever since debates over evolutionary theories in the late nineteenth century. Yet very few of these issues reached the judiciary before the 1950s, when the Supreme Court began applying the First Amendment to the academic speech of professors in cases reflecting general concerns about subversive activities throughout American institutions during the Cold War.

I will also point out that the early cases recognizing academic freedom as a First Amendment right attributed it to professors. Only in the late 1970s did decisions extend the First Amendment protection of academic freedom to universities as institutions. As a result, in some cases professors and universities raise conflicting claims of academic freedom against each other.

TL: One can find compelling arguments that academic freedom is under some threat today, though people differ in whether those attacks are coming from one political faction or another, or both. Is academic freedom under attack, or at risk?

DR: Academic freedom has always been under attack, perhaps never as much as during the investigations and dismissals of professors on the political left in the 1950s. It is always difficult to place current events in historical perspective, but the combination of threats to academic freedom from both the right and the left today may rival or exceed this earlier period. Attacks from the right today come mostly from outside the university, often from members of the public and politicians who are trying to prevent universities from teaching certain controversial subjects, most visibly ideas grouped under the heading “Critical Race Theory.” Attacks from the left today come primarily from professors and students who want to combat ideas they consider harmful, especially to members of vulnerable groups who have suffered discrimination.

TL: You were in college in the late 60s and early 70s, and you mentioned that Wesleyan’s commitment to academic freedom and free speech was on display at that time. For those who weren’t on a college campus then, much less that college campus, what were the hallmarks of that commitment?

DR: The war in Vietnam and the struggle for civil rights produced substantial unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including on college campuses. The administration at Wesleyan protected student rights to speak and demonstrate about these issues as well as to agitate for a greater student role in developing educational policy. In the classroom, the Wesleyan faculty overwhelmingly encouraged the expression of student views, even when challenging professors, while also maintaining the rigorous academic standards that are a condition of academic freedom.

TL: If a person reading this is interested to learn more, where—in addition to your superb books and articles—should they look?

DR: I recommend several books. Michael S. Roth, who is Wesleyan’s president (and who is, like me, a Wesleyan alumnus) wrote Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses, and our former colleague at Texas — as well at a UT Austin alumnus — Keith E. Whittington has a book, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech. I also recommend Erwin Chemerinsky’s and Howard Gillman’s Free Speech on Campus and Robert C. Post’s Democracy, Expertise, Academic Freedom: A First Amendment Jurisprudence for the Modern State. Finally, both The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education are journals that provide extensive news coverage of American universities, including stories about academic freedom and free speech.

Category: Faculty News, Law School News