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

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

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.”

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, 1860

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

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

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

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

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

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."

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

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.”

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

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

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

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

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.”

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

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

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.”

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

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie, 1990

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

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."

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin, 1722

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

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.”

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.”

A Fuller Measure of Witherspoon on Slavery

Kevin DeYoung
January 26, 2023

As of the online publication of this essay, Princeton University is still deciding what to do with Witherspoon. The Council of the Princeton University Committee on Naming is forming its recommendation in response to the petition initiated in May 2022 to remove from its place of honor in Firestone Library Plaza between East Pyne Hall and the Chapel the statue of John Witherspoon (1723 – 1794), Princeton’s sixth president who led the (then) College of New Jersey from 1768 until his death 26 years later. This statue, commissioned by the Princeton University Board of Trustees, was dedicated in 2001. The initiators of the petition have cited as reasons for the statue’s removal their beliefs that Witherspoon “participated actively in the enslavement of human beings, and used his scholarly gifts to defend the practice.” One opponent to the proposed removal of Witherspoon’s statue submitted that the petitioners have “a tragic misunderstanding. . . of the full measure of Witherspoon on slavery.” In this present essay, I present new evidence on the duration and nature of Witherspoon’s ownership of slaves. I also briefly note Witherspoon’s connections to other evangelical Christians active in the abolition movement. By reviewing these facts—some of them not mentioned before in any of the secondary literature—I hope to present a fuller measure of Witherspoon on slavery.

. . .

In all of this, we can still wish that Witherspoon had moved more quickly to free slaves in his own life or made the case for final abolition with more urgency. Indeed, New Jersey would become the last northern state to abolish slavery, doing so only in 1866, a year after the Civil War ended. But considering the totality of his teaching and his personal example on the issue of slavery, we ought to question any assessment that makes Witherspoon out to be someone deeply enmeshed in slavery throughout his life or in favor of the indefinite perpetuation of slavery. There is little doubt that Witherspoon was more enlightened on the issue of slavery than many of his generation, and less personally complicit in the evils of slavery than men like Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Franklin, and many of our country’s most celebrated founders.

Witherspoon was respected in his day as a great theologian, an exemplary college president, and an “animated son of liberty” whose leadership and sacrifice did much to advance the cause of the American Revolution and to establish the governing principles of the new republic. Even on the issue of slavery—though compromised by our standards—he showed himself to be moving in the right direction and called others to the same. With eyes wide open to his faults, Witherspoon’s legacy deserves to be commemorated—by the Scottish, by Americans, by Presbyterians, and, yes, by Princetonians too.

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Commentary: Wokeness in all its self-flattering moral vanity comes for a statue at Princeton

George F. Will
January 6, 2023

Excerpt: Squalls of indignation gust across campuses so frequently that they seem merely performative — synthetic, perfunctory, uninteresting. Princeton’s current contretemps, however, fascinatingly illustrates how wokeness, which lacks limiting principles, limits opposition to itself. Since 2001, a statue of John Witherspoon (1723-1794), the Presbyterian minister recruited from Scotland to be the then-college’s president, has adorned a plaza adjacent to Firestone Library.

Now the woke, who subordinate everything to “social justice” as they imagine it, demand its removal because he owned two slaves and did not advocate immediate abolition. As Princeton’s president, this “animated son of liberty” (John Adams’s description of the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence) assured the precarious institution’s survival. His students included future congressmen, senators, Supreme Court justices and a president — James Madison stayed an extra year to study with Witherspoon. . . . Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS), an alumni organization much more devoted than the university’s administration and trustees are to viewpoint diversity, notes that “the atmosphere on campus greatly inhibits students, faculty, and others from stating their true views” on “highly politicized issues,” which nowadays most issues become.

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Posted December 28, 2022

EDITORS NOTE: This is the submission sent by PFS to Princeton on the proposal to remove the statue of John Witherspoon currently being considered by the University.  PFS is also submitting to Princeton the biography of Witherspoon that is posted on the front of our website and is linked here:

PFS urges alumni and other Princetonians to submit their own comments to Princeton on removal of the statue.  Below this article there is information on how to submit comments.

EXCERPT: PFS will make the following points: 1. The process being followed by the Committee does not, and cannot, provide a true view of what Princetonians think on the issue in question because the atmosphere on campus greatly inhibits students, faculty, and others from stating their true views, especially where highly politicized issues are involved. 2. The debate over whether to remove the statue is not an isolated one, but rather has implications for other issues, most importantly, for free speech. 3. Removal of the statute would inevitably lead to petitions and demands to remove or rename other parts of Princeton’s history in a process that may never end. 4. Looked at more broadly, this continuing process of removing and renaming is an attempt to remove Princeton’s history, with all its complexity, in order to create a new university with a monolithic view that would make nonconforming views unwelcome.

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December 28, 2022

A group of over 300 people, mostly Princeton graduate students, has petitioned the University to remove the statue of John Witherspoon, arguing that it makes students feel not  "at home," largely because Witherspoon owned two slaves. The University is actively considering this petition under a formal process that includes "listening sessions" but also the ability to comment directly on the proposal.  PFS has submitted lengthy comments, and we urge interested Princetonians to submit comments as well.  Comments do not have to be long.  Click below for information on how to submit comments and on the key points surrounding the debate.

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