Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt’s Inaugural Free Speech Week Hosts NYT Columnist Bret Stephens

Photo+by+Harrison+McClary+for+Vanderbilt+University.+Used+with+permission.
Photo by Harrison McClary for Vanderbilt University. Used with permission.

In an event organized by Dialogue Vanderbilt to help commence Vanderbilt’s inaugural Free Speech Week, New York Times Opinion Columnist Bret Stephens discussed with Samar Ali, co-chair of the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, the importance of free speech and his personal conservative ideology. The talk took place on October 16 in Rothschild College’s Black Box Theater to an almost full crowd of around 130 people. Chancellor Daniel Diermeier introduced the two speakers and expressed his gratitude that “On our campus, we can come together for difficult conversations in the spirit of open inquiry and mutual respect.”

Regarding free speech as the “bedrock principle” of the university, Diermeier related the night’s dialogue to the 1967 Impact Symposium where Vanderbilt hosted controversial and revolutionary speakers like MLK Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Strom Thurmond, and Allen Ginsberg. Through Dialogue Vanderbilt’s many projects and events, the university intends to promote civil discourse by teaching “members of our community how to engage in constructive conversation, even when they fiercely disagree.”

Acknowledging the relevance of free speech issues today, Diermeier stated that “with emotions running high in the wake of Hamas’ atrocities in Israel, campus communities were ripped apart in a contest to see who could scream the loudest.” At Vanderbilt, however, Diermeier is proud to “debate and disagree without falling into the trap of moral condemnation and rushing to righteousness.”

After Diermeier concluded his remarks, Ali, a Vanderbilt Research Professor of Political Science and Law, echoed the chancellor’s sense of urgency and respect for her and Stephens’ dialogue, characterizing it as “a complex conversation for a complex time.” They began by speaking about free speech, which Stephens described as “the great enabler for intellectual thought, debate, and progress,” without which, he envisions “a road to mediocrity, which universities should be most afraid of.”

Stephens, famous for his conservative voice among the New York Times’ opinion columnists, demonstrated his independent thinking throughout the hour-long conversation. For example, he argued that hate speech is not real and that the Supreme Court was correct in its overturning of affirmative action, while also being strongly anti-Trump and advocating for the eradication of the 2nd Amendment.

Jumping to another hot topic, Ali then inquired into an issue that Stephens had changed his opinion on, that being the urgency of climate change. Sharing how a reader responded to a column where he downplayed the significance of climate change, Stephens recounted how he gratefully accepted the reader’s invitation to witness the melting of the icebergs in person in Greenland, realizing that he had been wrong. But, as Stephens said in response to an earlier question about free speech, “intellectual excellence requires stupid ideas to be shared and contradicted.”

While he says conservatism to him means stable families, patriots, and moral, responsible citizens, he describes “an unhealthy conservative movement” that erupted in 2016 due to a “bigoted blowhard who lucked into winning an election,” and ever since becoming worse, making his once Republican home “resemble a cult.” On HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher’s October 20 episode, Stephens gave similar remarks to copious applause, saying “the party has a Jim Jones problem – the whole party drank the kool-aid.”

While Stephens was critical of the Republican Party, he also voiced his opinion on the Democratic Party, asserting that the “Democrat sweet-spot is Clinton progressive culture,” which he describes as a common-sense approach to middle America. Overall, though, Stephens views the Democratic Party as a “giant missed opportunity.” Brett tosses out the border issue as an example and stipulates that while he’s pro-immigration, it’s “ridiculous” for the Democrats to not have a border policy. “In amazement” to himself, however, he has voted Democrat recently due to his pro-choice stance in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade

Returning to the topic of free speech, Stephens answered a question about the media’s role in affecting public opinion, saying the media has a responsibility to be more objective to help rebuild the public’s trust in American institutions. Just as he does not use Twitter or “X,” he urges other reporters to likewise not have Twitter accounts, so that their political views are not so “publicized.” 

The pair ended their conversation by acknowledging the victims of the war in Israel. Stephens, who was editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004, expressed his concern that the wars in Israel and Ukraine, as well as the possibility of conflict in Taiwan, could coalesce into World War III. Hypotheticals aside, however, Brett closed by saying, “As a human being, the mass of suffering brought about by the wantonness of hate is overwhelming.”

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About the Contributor
Jack Pressgrove, Contributor
Jack is a senior from Atlanta, Georgia, double majoring in Law, History, and Society and Classical and Mediterranean Studies with a minor in Philosophy. On campus, he serves as the President of Eta Sigma Phi and as a member of Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity. In his free time, he enjoys traveling, running, and watching movies.