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

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.”

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

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

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 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.”

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.”

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

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

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin, 1722

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

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 Washington
George Washington, 1783

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

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

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

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."

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, 1860

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

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.”

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

Václav Havel, 2000
Václav Havel, 2000

"Courage in the public sphere means that one is to go against majority opinion (at the same time risking losing one's position) in the name of the truth."

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

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

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

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

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.”

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November 19, 2021

The Year Campus Free Speech Groups Started Fighting Back

By Edward Yingling and Stuart Taylor, Jr.

Every day, it seems, there is another story about a speaker being cancelled or a professor being fired over something said or written. The forces against free speech and academic freedom are strong and seem to be getting stronger. But in 2021 things began to change.

Is this the early stirring of a movement that could stem the cancel culture tide? Or the last gasp of the freedom of thought that was once the soul of our universities? Time will tell. But it is at least possible that the fatalistic fears of many free speech supporters may prove premature.

For the first time, there are very serious, and potentially powerful, organizations of faculty and of alumni fighting for free speech and academic freedom. Some college administrations are realizing that pro-actively supporting the principles of free speech and academic freedom is not only the right thing to do, but that doing so will attract students and faculty to their campuses. There is even a new university starting up explicitly based on these principles, with an all-star board of advisers that includes leading champions of free speech and academic freedom.

Click here for link to full article

Latest News and Commentary


November 25, 2021
By Robert P. George, Director of the James Madison Program
James Madison Progrm

Excerpt: A happy Thanksgiving to you! Although days of Thanksgiving in our country have been observed going all the way back to the presidency of George Washington, the national holiday we celebrate today was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863—in the very midst of the Civil War.

There are still abundant national blessings … and national sins … and divine mercy. And there is national division. On this Thanksgiving Day we are a polarized nation and too many Americans are stuck in silos. Half the country, it seems, gets its information and analysis exclusively from Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and American Greatness; the other half, from MSNBC or CNN, the New York Times, and the Nation. In their respective silos, people are constantly told they are right—reinforced in what they happen to believe—and taught to regard their fellow citizens who disagree as villains … and therefore enemies.

To decide where you should stand, I urge you to avoid the silos and listen attentively to what intelligent voices on the competing sides are saying. To allow oneself to be constantly reinforced in what one already believes is to court becoming a mere partisan, a dogmatist, an ideologue.

November 17, 2021
By Keith E. Whittington
The Volokh Conspiracy, Reason Magazine

Excerpt: Indiana University recently got a new president. A law professor there wound up trying to peer into the process of how the old president was departing and how the new president was selected. The university preferred that such information remain behind closed doors.

Next thing you know the professor was getting public record requests from a local law firm for his emails on his university account. The law firm would not reveal who was behind the requests, but there is reason to think that university officials are the ones doing the snooping. The Academic Freedom Alliance has objected to this apparent attempt to harass and intimidate a member of the faculty by the university administration.


November 16, 2021
By Keith E. Whittington
The Volokh Conspiracy, Reason Magazine

Excerpt: The University of Michigan opened this academic year with an academic freedom scandal. Music professor Bright Sheng showed his class the 1965 film of Othello with Laurence Olivier playing the Moor in dark makeup. The university removed Sheng from the classroom and opened an investigation. The Academic Freedom Alliance condemned the university for violating Professor Sheng's academic freedom. The university eventually relented and dropped the investigation. Unfortunately, that is not quite the end of the matter.

Professor Sheng has not been returned to his class. The university has hardly recognized its error and has failed to adequately reaffirm its commitments to academic freedom. Not exactly an encouraging sign for the future. And now some members of the faculty who were enthusiastic about the persecution of Professor Sheng are doubling down.


November 15, 2021
By Rohit Narayanan
The Daily Princetonian

Excerpt: A group of anti-cancel culture public intellectuals recently announced their plans to start a new university — The University of Austin (UATX). The news seemed designed to generate Twitter outrage. But it’s worth spending some time analyzing the college they’re planning to create.

Making fun of the new venture is easy. Its FAQ has some lines that elicit eyerolls (“Why Austin? If it’s good enough for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, it’s good enough for us”), and some of its advisors seem to be more interested in waging partisan battles than actually making a point about academic freedom. But at the same time, elite higher education does struggle with stasis, and UATX has some genuinely good ideas. Where UATX stumbles is its raison d’etre: cancel culture. It’s not clear what more UATX would add in this space.


November 5, 2021
By Keith E. Whittington
The Volokh Conspiracy, Reason Magazine

Excerpt: The Academic Freedom Alliance today issued its first guidance statement. These statements will address broader policy issues in American higher education that implicate academic freedom but that might not involve any particular incident at a specific university or relating to a specific individual professor.

This statement relates to the increasingly common demand by university officials that professors affirm their belief on some question of contested values or political sentiment. Of late, many of these incidents involve diversity statements or anti-racism statements, but these sorts of demands can range across the political and ideological spectrum and involve a wide range of specific issues. It is inappropriate for university officials to demand that professors engage in compelled speech, regardless of the topic or the popularity of the opinion to be expressed.


National and International

November 26, 2021
By Niall Ferguson
Bloomberg News (originally published November 8, 2021)

Editor's Note, November 26, 2021

When notable articles come to our attention weeks after they were published, we sometimes precede them with an editor’s note dated when written, as above, to get them onto our homepage. The below commentary is notable because it details the thinking of a group of distinguished scholars -- much reviled by many other academics -- who plan to create a new college because “something is rotten in the state of academia.”

Excerpt: Something is rotten in the state of academia and it’s no laughing matter. Grade inflation. Spiraling costs. Corruption and racial discrimination in admissions. Junk content (“Grievance Studies”) published in risible journals. Above all, the erosion of academic freedom and the ascendancy of an illiberal “successor ideology” known to its critics as wokeism, which manifests itself as career-ending “cancelations” and speaker disinvitations, but less visibly generates a pervasive climate of anxiety and self-censorship.
Some say that universities are so rotten that the institution itself should simply be abandoned and replaced with an online alternative — a metaversity perhaps, to go with the metaverse. I disagree. I have long been skeptical that online courses and content can be anything other than supplementary to the traditional real-time, real-space college experience.

However, having taught at several, including Cambridge, Oxford, New York University and Harvard, I have also come to doubt that the existing universities can be swiftly cured of their current pathologies. That is why I am one of a group of people announcing the founding of a new university — indeed, a new kind of university: the University of Austin.


November 24, 2021
By Colleen Flaherty
Inside Higher Ed

Excerpt: Recruiting for a research study on the effectiveness of antiracism training for white children is on hold at the University of Texas at Austin. This follows a complaint to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that the project is racially discriminatory, among other criticism.

The university is now reviewing the study. Numerous professors are asking the university to allow the research to proceed during the internal and external reviews, arguing that UT Austin’s institutional review board previously approved the project, as did peer reviewers during a competitive internal funding process. These professors warn that halting research due to outside complaints threatens the integrity of the study at hand and, more generally, chills free inquiry into timely subjects such as antiracism.

GoKAR!, or Kids Against Racism, recently began recruiting up to 200 pairs of children and their caregivers, advertising opportunities to “engage in dialogue about anti-Black racism with their preschool-aged children at home.”



November 23, 2021
By Yangyang Chen
The Atlantic

Excerpt: The woman in the video is about the same age as my mother. She is speaking at a school-board meeting in Virginia as a concerned parent.

“I’ve been very alarmed by what’s going on in our schools,” she reads from prepared notes. “You are now teaching, training our children to be social-justice warriors and to loathe our country and our history.” Her voice is soft but stern. She recounts her youth in Mao Zedong’s China and the political fanaticism she witnessed firsthand, before calling critical race theory “the American version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.” At the end of her remarks, the audience bursts into cheers. “Virginia Mom Who Survived Maoist China Eviscerates School Board’s Critical Race Theory Push,” blares the headline on Fox News.

As a Chinese academic working in the U.S., I watched the video and was disconcerted by its familiarity. The speaker’s views are not uncommon among many first-generation Chinese immigrants, who are grateful to their new country and eager to assimilate.


November 23, 2021
By Aaron Terr
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Excerpt: Discrimination. Censorship. Elizabethtown College is quickly gaining a reputation for disregarding student rights. FIRE recently covered the college’s hosting of a racially segregated event. Now add to the college’s missteps its refusal to approve a student group’s guest speaker because of the speaker’s political views.

On Oct. 5, FIRE wrote privately to Etown, calling on the college to recommit to its strong promises of free expression after it notified the campus chapter of a student organization, Turning Point USA, that it could not host conservative political commentator Joe Basrawi.

The college ignored our letter, just as it remained silent when we called out its decision to endorse racial segregation. If Etown won’t defend its actions to FIRE, the college at least owes its student body and the public an explanation for why it continues to trample on the rights it promises — or that it is required by federal law to respect, as in the case of nondiscrimination on the basis of race — to its students.

November 23, 2021
By Peter Wood

Americans are beginning to seek alternatives to our established menu of colleges and universities. In fact, not just Americans. Students from other countries are also choosing alternatives to studying in the US. The combined effect has been a sharp drop in American college enrollment, which is down overall by about 8 percent over the last two years, and more than 14 percent at community colleges. Enrollment of new foreign students fell last year by 46 percent.

Some of this, of course, is due to Covid. And some of it is due to a demographic shift: fewer babies born 17 to 20 years ago. But other contributing factors are more mysterious. Why has there been a precipitous drop in the number of males who choose to go to college? Why have so many colleges declared themselves “systemically racist”? Why have colleges turned campus life into a pressure cooker of ideological conformity?

The recent formation of a new institution, the University of Austin (UATX), which intends to break with the herd mentality, was met with met with high praise in many quarters, and with extreme disdain by many supporters of the legacy institutions.