Alec Greven, '21

September 29, 2020
Richmond Scholar advocates for free speech at University of Richmond and beyond

No doubt, speech can cause harm. But is censoring speech the best policy? Alec Greven, ’21, thinks not. Yet many universities enforce speech codes that do just that.

“The First Amendment protection of free speech doesn’t apply to private institutions like University of Richmond,” Greven said. “Some universities argue that speech codes are needed to enforce institutional values. But I believe universities should be committed to maximizing speech above all. It’s better to work on empowering marginalized voices than on silencing some speech.”

The senior from Castle Rock, Colo., became interested in free speech while taking The Philosophy of Freedom, a first-year seminar class taught by associate professor of leadership studies Javier Hidalgo.

“Dr. Hidalgo gave us two unidentified college speech policies to review,” Greven said. “My class overwhelmingly voted for the policy that, as it turned out, was University of Chicago’s. The other policy, University of Richmond’s, built a lot of free-speech protections into faculty contracts, but provided students fewer protections.”

Not content to theorize about free speech, in 2018, Greven drafted a resolution calling for a clear, comprehensive statement on student freedom of expression. The Richmond College Student Government Association unanimously passed the resolution, but it received some pushback from the Faculty Senate.

“There’s a natural urge to censor speech you disagree with,” Greven said. “Most people oppose free speech until their ox is being gored.”

Nevertheless, his resolution helped spark a campus-wide conversation. In May 2019, President Ronald Crutcher convened a task force charged with reviewing the University’s policies on freedom of expression and academic freedom and drafting a statement on the shared institutional understanding of these concepts. The Faculty Senate, in collaboration with the student governments, will be discussing the task force’s statement this semester.

Greven, a Richmond Scholar who is double majoring in leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics, and law (PPEL), started working as a research assistant to Dr. Jessica Flanigan, an associate professor of leadership studies and PPEL, in spring 2019.

In February 2020 they received a research grant from the Institute for Humane Studies to create a guidebook for promoting free speech on college campuses. Soon they will submit for publication a research paper they co-authored on free speech and open inquiry on college campuses.

This past summer, Greven continued his exploration of freedom of expression through his Jepson internship with the Institute for Free Speech, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes and defends First Amendment rights.

“It was a fascinating summer to delve into the limits of free speech given the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and the upcoming election season,” Greven said. “I particularly enjoyed writing a piece about the importance of protecting free speech prior to being in an emergency, a time when officials often limit free speech. For example, some places are banning Black Lives Matter protests because of the pandemic.”

Currently, Greven is researching and writing his Jepson senior honors thesis, which focuses on the moral rights of freedom of expression and the limits of those rights.

“Alec is well suited to do this kind of work because he is a skilled writer with a serious interest in analytic philosophy,” said Flanigan, Greven’s thesis advisor. “An open-minded thinker, he can charitably engage with all sides of these debates.” 

The New York Times best-selling author of child self-help books (his first book, “How to Talk to Girls,” became a bestseller when he was only nine) said he plans to pursue a career in legal advocacy in support of individual rights. In the meantime, he continues to promote expanded freedom of expression for students at Richmond and other universities.

“Speech codes aren’t conducive to the values of higher education,” Greven said. “They can lead to more coded speech, making it harder to identify and challenge speech about controversial ideas. Only a campus with freedom of expression can prepare students for a life in a democratic society.”