A recent incident at American University’s School of Law highlights just how divisive the issue of campus speech has become. As the Washington Post reported, it began with a note:

Earlier this month, someone left a hand-written flier on the door of a faculty member’s office at American University’s Washington College of Law that read, “All Lives Matter.”

In response, many faculty and students expressed outrage at what they perceived as racist speech. The phrase “All Lives Matter,” is a not-uncommon response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement which has arisen in the last few years as a result of racial prejudice and police brutality in the justice system. Some American University students and faculty condemned the note as code for racist criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement, or support for white supremacists.

In response to this criticism, two members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote this in a letter to the dean:

We understand that a student put a note on a faculty member’s door that said, “All lives matter.” As law professors ourselves,  we know that it is common for students to place cartoons,news clippings and other notes on faculty member’s doors. While this student did so anonymously, there was nothing particularly extraordinary about that.

The response of American University faculty and staff was nothing short of Orwellian. Nearly sixty members of the law faculty and staff signed a letter calling this an “act of intolerance,” because it refers to “all lives” rather than only “black lives.” This makes American University look foolish. Even sillier, the letter calls this obviously true statement—that the lives of all members of the human species are valuable—“a rallying cry for many who espouse ideas of white supremacy.”

While we know that President Obama has stated that “all lives matter,” we are not personally aware of any cases in which white supremacists (a rare species these days) have made that statement. Equating a student making a legitimate and utterly unobjectionable point with a white supremacist is nonsensical.

The letter further states that it is unacceptable for a student to make such a statement anonymously. But what do you expect in an environment in which faculty members will accuse a student of uttering “a rallying cry for many who espouse ideas of white supremacy”?

Whatever your opinion on the phrase “all lives matter,” this incident highlights the importance of free and open inquiry on college campuses. In order for students to really learn and understand new ideas, they need to be able to discuss those ideas freely in an academic environment—not hide behind anonymous notes for fear of retaliation.

Check out the video below featuring Professor Don Downs for more on the importance of academic freedom.