Words of Wisdom: Great Thinkers on Why Free Speech Is Vital

Thurgood Marshall
Thurgood Marshall, Police Dept. of City of Chicago v. Mosley (1972)

“The First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.”

United States Constitution, first amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people… more

George Orwell
George Orwell, 1945; Preface to Animal Farm

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, 1860

"Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thought and opinions has ceased to exist."

William Brennan
Justice William Brennan, Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967)

“[A]cademic freedom... is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the … more

Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics, written in latter half of 1950s

“If someone wants to see and experience the world as it ‘really’ is, he can do so only by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, lies between them, separates them,… more

Margaret Chase Smith
Margaret Chase Smith, 1950 speech against McCarthyism

"The right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; the right of independent thought. The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation… more

Jonathan Rauch
Jonathan Rauch, 2013

“History shows that the more open the intellectual environment, the better minorities will do.... [G]ay people know we owe our progress to freedom of speech and freedom of thought.... The best society for minorities is not the society… more

Jonathan Rauch
Jonathan Rauch, 2016

“The greatest idea in the history of human civilization is the idea that we are better off, personally and as a society, if we not only tolerate but actively protect speech and thought that is wrong-headed, offensive, bigoted, seditious,… more

President Obama
President Barack Obama, September 2015, comments at high school town hall meeting in Des Moines, Iowa

“The purpose of college is not just... to transmit skills. It’s also to widen your horizons, to make you a better citizen, to help you to evaluate… more

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie, 1990

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

Justice Louis Brandeis
Justice Louis Brandeis, concurring opinion in Whitney v. California, 1927

“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced… more

Nadine Strossen
Nadine Strossen, former ACLU president, 2018

“In the long run, an open airing of discriminatory ideas, and an ensuing debate about them, may well be more effective in curbing them than censorship would be.”

George Washington
George Washington, 1783

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

“We read of tortures in jails with electric devices, suicides among prisoners, forced confessions, while in the outside community ruthless persecution of editors, religious leaders, and political opponents suppress free speech—and a… more

John Lewis
John Lewis, 2017

“Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings.”

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, 1860 speech

“No right was deemed by the fathers of the Government more sacred than the right of speech. . . the great moral renovator of society and government.  . . .  Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thought and… more

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin, 1722

“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”

Ira Glasser
Ira Glasser, 2020 interview

“[A]fter [a] panel discussion [at a prestigious law school], person after person got up, including some of the younger professors, to assert that their goals of social justice for blacks, for women, for… more

Henry Steele Commager
Henry Steele Commager, 1954

“The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion. In the long run it will create a generation incapable of appreciating the… more

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill, On Freedom, 1859

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the… more

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2012 interview

"A constitution, as important as it is, will mean nothing unless the people are yearning for liberty and freedom.”

Donald Downs
Donald Downs, 2020

“Punishing evil or bad thoughts amounts to thought control, which is the quintessential First Amendment sin and a hallmark of an authoritarian or totalitarian state. It is no accident that polities that coerce their vision of a new and… more

James Madison
James Madison, 1788 speech

“I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."

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Why Free Speech and Academic Freedom are Endangered at Princeton

Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of democracy and essential to learning. Yet surveys show that many university students not only do not understand the significance of free speech, they actually oppose it. Academic freedom is fundamental to the concept of a university.  Today, both freedoms are under attack at universities across the country, often by active, well-organized groups of faculty and students.  Princeton is no exception. Continue reading>>

Latest News and Commentary


June 8, 2021
By Keith E. Whittington
The Volokh Conspiracy, Reason

Excerpt: I am pleased to note that the Academic Freedom Alliance has launched a new podcast, The Academic Freedom Podcast. New episodes should drop every month or so and explore issues relating to academic freedom and campus free speech.

The first episode is now available, and it consists of the audio recording of the webinar panel that the AFA recently hosted on the landmark 6th circuit case on First Amendment protections for academic freedom and classroom speech by professors. The case is Meriwether v. Hartop. For that conversation, I was joined by Jeannie Suk Gersen, Steve Sanders, and Volokh Conspiracy co-blogger Jonathan Adler. I hope you will subscribe so that you will not miss future episodes that will include a mix of thematic panel discussions and guest interviews.


June 7, 2021
By John McWhorter
The Atlantic

Excerpt: The classics department at Princeton University recently decided that the idea that classics majors ought to know Latin or Greek has been a mistake. Old-fashioned, perhaps. Until now, undergrads who wanted to major in the study of classical texts needed to come into the concentration with at least an intermediate level of Latin or Greek. But those students will no longer even have to learn either language to receive a degree in classics. This is a typical example of a university rushing to make policy changes under the guise of promoting racial equity that are as likely to promote racism as to uproot it.

The department had considered the policy change before, the Princeton Alumni Weekly reported, but saw it as taking on a “new urgency” by the “events around race that occurred last summer.”


May 26, 2021
By Keith E. Whittington
The Volokh Conspiracy, Reason Magazine

Excerpt: The question is not whether Nikole Hannah-Jones should have been offered a tenured position in the journalism school at a university. My Princeton colleague, Sean Wilentz, is a man of the left and a historian of American politics and he has been among those who have raised red flags about the quality of "The 1619 Project" that won Hannah-Jones a Pulitzer Prize. There are plenty of good reasons why a member of the faculty might vote against extending such an offer.

The question is who ought to decide whether particular individuals should be hired for available faculty positions. The board at UNC has apparently taken the view that it should not rubber stamp such offers but should feel free to override the determination of the faculty and administration on individual personnel decisions. Nothing good can come of this.

May 24, 2021
By Keith E. Whittington and Sean Wilentz
Chronicle of Higher Education

Summary: Today’s rampant political polarization has led to alarming interference in academic affairs and threatens the foundations of teaching and scholarship, especially in areas of civics and American history. Most recently, the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees has apparently balked at the faculty’s recommendation that Nikole Hannah-Jones be appointed with tenure to the Knight chair in race and investigative journalism. She will instead hold the chair for a five-year term.

It seems that political considerations drove the board to take the extraordinary step of intervening in the university’s hiring decision – which would be a clear threat to academic freedom. There are, no doubt, reasons to object to awarding a tenured position to Hannah-Jones. Her work on “The 1619 Project” is controversial. So is her choice to sometimes dismiss and demean her critics instead of engaging with their arguments on the merits.

But political intervention in matters of faculty hiring will do lasting damage to higher education in North Carolina — and will embolden boards across the country similarly to interfere with academic operations of the universities that they oversee.

Whittington is a professor of politics at Princeton University and chairman of the Academic Freedom Alliance; Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton

May 20, 2021
By Princeton University Reunions Event

A video recording is now available of this May 20 panel discussion at Princeton Reunions, which was moderated by Robert P. George, who holds Princeton University's McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence and is the Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, and included Flora ChampyAssistant Professor of French and Italian, Princeton University; Randall Kennedy '77Michael R. Klein Professor, Harvard Law School; and Stuart Taylor, Jr. '70, Journalist and President of Princetonians for Free Speech.




June 14, 2021
By Daniel Vock
Louisiana Illuminator

Excerpt: Teachers from Tennessee to Iowa are swept up in a wave of outrage led by GOP politicians nationwide over how schools teach kids about race in U.S. history. The changes have come so quickly, and with such ferocity, that many teachers were caught off guard. But now educators are under pressure and grappling with how to respond, whether with protests, potential lawsuits, a departure or early retirement from the profession, or just attempts to accommodate the new policies.

Anton Schulzki, a public high school teacher in Colorado Springs and the president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies, says teachers’ options vary greatly depending on where they are and how secure they are in their jobs. “Teachers are part of the community. They have bills and mortgages to pay. They’ve got their own families to raise. So they may play it a little safe,” says Schulzki.


June 12, 2021
By Valerie Strauss
The Washington Post

Excerpt: On Saturday, thousands of educators and others gathered virtually and in person at historic locations in more than 20 cities to make clear that they would resist efforts in at least 15 Republican-led states to restrict what teachers can say in class about racism, sexism and oppression in America. Organized by local educators across the country in association with several social justice organizations, the National Day of Action is meant to raise public awareness about the legislation and to send a message that they will not lie to students about the country’s racist past and present.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country, said the restrictions on teaching racism are dangerous. “No matter our color, background, or Zip code, we want our kids to have an education that imparts honesty about who we are, integrity in how we treat others, and courage to do what’s right.”


June 11, 2021
By Joe Killian
NC Policywatch

Excerpt: Attorneys for UNC-Chapel Hill will meet with the legal team of Nikole Hannah Jones Thursday to find “a potential resolution” to the tenure stand-off that has generated international headlines. But students, faculty and members of the university’s board of trustees say regardless of whether a resolution can be found, the damage has been done: to the school’s reputation, trust in university leadership and the norms under which the school has long operated.

Last week, the university saw the tangible cost of its inaction on Hannah-Jones’s tenure. Lisa Jones, a renowned chemistry professor UNC was attempting to recruit from the University of Maryland at Baltimore, decided against coming to the school. Jones, who is Black, had been eagerly recruited by the school’s chemistry department. But in a letter to the school she called the treatment of Hannah-Jones “very disheartening.”


June 10, 2021
By Glenn Reynolds
New York Post

Excerpt: Yale University appears to be in the midst of a meltdown. You may find that irrelevant, or even amusing, but you shouldn’t. Because Yale’s sad condition, unfortunately, is common to many of our most important institutions.

We see publishers where the staff successfully demand the banning of authors they don’t like. We see software companies where employees, instead of doing their jobs, spend hours talking politics and trying to politicize their companies. We see news organizations taken over by “woke” ideology. We see teenagers kicked out of school for tweets made years earlier. And now, in a place that is supposed to be all about the rule of law, we see anonymous mob rule. We hear a lot about justice, but anonymous accusations and power politics aren’t justice, and places that are ruled in such a fashion tend to do badly.


June 10, 2021
By PEN America

Excerpt: Yale University’s School of Medicine has decided to restrict access to a recording of a talk by psychiatrist Dr. Aruna Khilanani. The lecture, delivered online April 6 as part of the school’s “Grand Rounds” lecture series, generated public outcry over Khilanani’s discussion of racial stereotypes about white people, and some violent subject matter including fantasies of shooting them. The School of Medicine has said the talk was “antithetical to the values of the school” and cited the “extreme hostility, imagery of violence, and profanity expressed by the speaker” as grounds for overriding the considerations of freedom of expression. Khilanani has said that her words have been “taken out of context,” and that she prefaced her remarks as using “provocation as a tool for real engagement.”

“Free expression policies must not be discarded when provocative, offensive, or discomforting remarks are challenged—rather, those are the difficult times when free speech must be most robustly upheld.”