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

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

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.”

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

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

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin, 1722

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

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.”

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

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

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

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, 1860

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

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.”

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

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

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

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

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie, 1990

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

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.”

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.”

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.”

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

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

Constitution
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

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."

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

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>>

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Latest News and Commentary

Princeton

May 5, 2021
By Michael Poliakoff
Newsweek

Excerpt: Cornell University is, at the moment, ground zero in this ideological battle.

Official working groups at Cornell recently proffered proposals to address such issues as settler colonialism, white privilege, structural racism, injustice and bias. Their "Educational Requirement for Antiracist, Just, and Equitable Futures" is aggressive and expansive.

A strident movement of Cornell faculty, graduate students and staff declared that Cornell "remains a site of entrenched racial disparities" that must change, because it is "complicit, in countless ways, in the reproduction of white supremacy." The group calls on the school to "embed decolonized readings in every possible course at Cornell" and to "abolish colorblind recruitment policies and practices...and replace them with intentionally anti-racist policies and practices." It adds a gratuitous bit of anti-Zionism to "set benchmarks" for addressing Cornell's "institutional partnership with Technion Israeli Institute of Technology."

 

April 20, 2021
By Cornel West and Jeremy Tate
Washington Post

Excerpt: Upon learning to read while enslaved, Frederick Douglass began his great journey of emancipation, as such journeys always begin, in the mind. Defying unjust laws, he read in secret, empowered by the wisdom of contemporaries and classics alike to think as a free man. Douglass risked mockery, abuse, beating and even death to study the likes of Socrates, Cato and Cicero.

Long after that, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would be similarly galvanized by his reading in the classics as a young seminarian. Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired Douglass, King and countless other freedom fighters. Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.

Cornel West is a professor of public philosophy at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton. Jeremy Tate is the founder and CEO of the Classic Learning Test.

April 20, 2021
By David Palomino
The Daily Princetonian

Excerpt: In the summer of 2018, incoming first-years encountered Princeton Professor Keith Whittingon’s book “Speak Freely” as the Princeton Pre-Read. For his introduction, Whittington expressed the hope that universities are “First Amendment institutions'' because they are “where ideas begin.” Universities are “bastions'' of “critical dialogue.”

On April 9, President Biden appointed Whittington to his 36-member Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States. In the spirit of dialogue which Whittington himself espouses, we might hope for Whittington to engage in a meaningful exchange of views with Princeton’s student body concerning the future of the Supreme Court and of the United States.
Formed to analyze the merits of Supreme Court reform, the commission has the potential to inform groundbreaking transformations of one of our nation’s most powerful institutions. With the commission’s report “set to be finished in October,” Princeton students here and now have a unique window to interface with this project through Professor Whittington. To capitalize on this opportunity, students can do precisely what Whittington has long advocated: speak freely.

April 13, 2021
By Abigail Anthony
National Review

Excerpt: Princeton University, where I am currently an undergraduate student, clearly has different standards for political protests and religious services. Princeton recently permitted a large anti-racism vigil that violated Social Contract guidelines, but upheld the restrictions for the Catholic organization’s Easter Vigil and Mass. On March 27, several hundred Princeton University students and community members gathered for a “Stop Asian Hate rally and vigil” to condemn anti-Asian racism and to mourn victims of the recent Atlanta shooting. A Princeton University student publication reported that “protesters, who were instructed to be socially distant by organizers, appeared spread out,” although the photographs clearly demonstrate otherwise.

The event violated the university’s Social Contract, which explicitly requires signatories to “not host or attend any in-person gatherings on campus with more than five people indoors or ten people outdoors unless sponsored by the university or otherwise indicated by official, visibly displayed COVID-19 room occupancy limits.” Princeton officials attended the vigil. 

April 11, 2021
By Christopher Kane
Princeton Tory

Summary: Student members of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society (known as Whig-Clio) received an email on April 9 announcing that the Whig-Clio Board of Trustees had rejected the March 4 recommendation by the student members to revoke the James Madison Award that Senator Ted Cruz had received in 2016. The students had voted to revoke the award -- the highest honor Whig-Clio bestows upon public servants -- because of Cruz’s alleged role in inciting the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6.

Whig-Clio has faced recurring accusations of anti-conservative bias. In 2018, Amy Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was disinvited to speak less than 20 hours before her free speech-themed event was scheduled. This January, Tory Publisher and former Cliosophic Party Chair Adam Hoffman ’23, accused Whig-Clio of deliberately stifling conservative voices by preventing prominent figures, such as former University trustee George Will ’68 GS and D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neomi Rao, from speaking. 

National

May 6, 2021
By Azhar Majeed
First Amendment Watch, NYU

Excerpt: In Idaho, members of the legislature have been trying for over a year to prevent public universities from using state funding to support “social justice”-related activities, organizations, and events on campus. They have advanced budgets that have cut funding and have threatened further cuts. This led Boise State University to suddenly cancel 52 diversity-related classes in March of this year.

The message to colleges—and to individual professors—is clear: teach disfavored topics or viewpoints, and risk losing state funding.

House Concurrent Resolution 12, introduced in March, plainly states that “the Legislature should reduce funding to public universities commensurate with the spending on any social justice courses, programs, services, and trainings.” While the resolution is non-binding, its ideological thrust is unmistakable, declaring that “social justice education does not serve the common good.”

May 6, 2021
By Teri Sforza and Eric Licas
Mercury News

Excerpt: The faculty union at Cypress College has taken the administration to task for not defending the adjunct professor who repeatedly interrupted a student in an online speech class as he tried to argue that many police officers could be seen as heroes.

“The failure to issue a clear and strong statement of support for faculty under the existing circumstances is a failure to be anti-racist,” said the May 3 letter, signed by Christie Diep, president of United Faculty of the North Orange County Community College District, and Mohammad M. Abdel Haq, its lead negotiator.

The adjunct professor who has not been identified out of concerns for her safety, has taken a leave of absence for the remainder of her assignment.

 

May 5, 2021
By Keith E. Whittington
Reason

Excerpt: The AFA is an ideologically diverse group of over 200 academics dedicated to the defense of professorial free speech and academic freedom at American universities. We provide solidarity and legal resources in cases in which an academic has been threatened with sanctions for their speech that is protected by constitutional, statutory, or contractual rights.

In the past few days, we have achieved victories in two early cases. At the University of Rhode Island, campus administrators have finally admitted that AFA founding member Professor Donna Hughes's personal political writings are protected speech and cannot be the basis for sanctions by her public university employer. At the University of San Diego, the provost has issued a public statement ending the unnecessary investigation of Professor Tom Smith's personal blog post. Neither case should have proceeded as far as it did.

May 4, 2021
By Andrew Sasser
The Dartmouth

Summary: Two bills in New Hampshire’s legislature have recently come under fire from a variety of educators and other groups within the state, including Dartmouth University. House Bill 2, the state’s annual must-pass budget bill, would forbid local government, state-funded schools and universities, and associated contractors, from teaching employees or students about “divisive concepts.” House Bill 111 would repeal “official immunity” liability protections for state public officials acting in good faith. Both measures have been criticized on the grounds that they will unduly restrict what concepts can be taught in schools and could open up teachers and other officials to spurious lawsuits simply for doing their jobs.

May 4, 2021
By Eugene Volokh
Reason

Excerpt: From Provost Gail F. Baker:

    We recently received complaints relating to a post by USD Law Professor Tom Smith on his personal blog concerning the causes of COVID-19. The complaints alleged violations of various university and School of Law policies.

    As a threshold matter, we sought to determine whether the blog post at issue was protected by our policy on academic freedom. After a thorough legal review, it was determined that the expression was protected by that policy.

    This conclusion in no way amounts to an endorsement by the university of the opinions shared in the blog post.

    Academic freedom lies at the core of the mission of the University of San Diego. At the same time, we are committed to providing an educational environment that honors the dignity of every individual. Those two commitments can and must co-exist. It is important that members of the university community exercise their freedom in a responsible fashion, attentive to the impact of their protected opinions and sensitive to all members of the community, especially those who may feel vulnerable, marginalized or fearful that they are not welcomed. Members of the university community may feel an obligation, and certainly have the freedom to criticize opinions that they believe demean the dignity of others.

I would have much liked to see a stronger defense of academic freedom. Still, the result is correct.