Frederick M. Lawrence wears plenty of hats, but for the purposes of Thursday’s Founders Day celebration at Union College, he spoke as secretary and CEO of the national Phi Beta Kappa Society.
The first order of business was to talk about the long connection between the college and Phi Beta Kappa, a history that didn’t get off on the right foot, according to Lawrence.
“We’re celebrating Union’s 222nd year and the 200th anniversary of the school forming the Alpha Chapter of New York,” said Lawrence, who is also an attorney, civil rights scholar, college president and professor. “When Union joined, it was actually the second time they had sought to become a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and the first process 215 years ago wasn’t that successful. Well, all these years later, let me say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
Lawrence’s apology drew laughter from the Memorial Chapel crowd, made up mostly of Union College administration, faculty and students. A 1977 graduate of Williams College who went on to Yale Law School, Lawrence’s light-hearted opening was followed by a much more somber delivery about the law, free speech, hate crimes and the danger of saying too much.
“Not all chilling effects are wrong,” said Lawrence, a Port Washington native who won the William Bradford Turner Prize, the school’s highest honor, before heading off to Yale, where he was editor of the Yale Law Journal in 1980.
“Our words have consequences, so we need to have civility,” he said. “We have to understand all that we are permitted to say and all that we ought not to say. We can disagree without deligitimizing someone else; we can question others’ opinions without questioning their motives, and we can do a robust search for our common ground.”
Lawrence called them the three rules of “vigorous civility.”
“We should remember Lincoln’s words, ‘The better angels of our nature,’ and remember what a mentor of mine told me, ‘We agree on everything except our opinions,’” said Lawrence, drawing some more laughter from the crowd. “We have to be able to say that to others. If we can maintain the ability to say that, then we can build a community worthy of our 200 years. If we can’t, we have lost something that is very special and perhaps irreplaceable.”
Lawrence began his law career as a clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and joined the faculty at Boston University School of Law in 1988, teaching courses in civil rights enforcement, criminal law and civil procedure. He also served as president of Brandeis University from 2010-15 and is now a senior research scholar and visiting professor of law at Yale Law School.
“It’s hard sometimes to make the distinction between speech and conduct,” said Lawrence. “Even hate speech is protected, and even though the Supreme Court has become more conservative, it has consistently upheld the right to burn the U.S. flag. But we do draw a line, and if it’s something that we want to protect, we’ll call it speech, and if it’s something we want to punish, we’ll call it conduct.
Lawrence pointed out that, while the act of burning a cross at a KKK rally — as distasteful as it might be — is protected free speech, someone who burns a cross on the front lawn of a black family is going too far and is subject to arrest.
“Even a dog knows the difference between being tripped over and being kicked,” said Lawrence, who didn’t seem to have any notes or an outline to draw from as he gave the speech. At the conclusion, he was given a standing ovation.
“He was able to speak without referring to a script, and he obviously knew what he was talking about,” said Kevin Barhydt, a member of Union’s IT staff. “He spoke extemporaneously, but he’s been saying that for more than 20 years. Obviously, it wasn’t something he wrote down in the last 15 minutes. Mario Cuomo used to write his speeches and read from his scripts. We loved what he said, but it was much more thrilling for me to see listen to [Lawrence] and really see and hear the heart and soul of what he believes.”
Lawrence was introduced by Union College President Stephen C. Ainlay, while Audrey Hunt, President of the Student Forum and a member of the class of 2017, also spoke at the event.
First 10 Phi Beta Kappa Chapters
1. College of William & Mary, December 5, 1776
2. Yale University, November 13, 1780
3. Harvard University, September 5, 1781
4. Dartmouth College, August 20, 1787
5. Union College, May 1, 1817
6. Bowdoin College, February 22, 1825
7. Brown University, July 31, 1830
8. Trinity College, July 2, 1845
9. Wesleyan University, July 7, 1845
10. Case Western Reserve University, October 28, 1847