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

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

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

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."

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."

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

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

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin, 1722

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

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

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

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.”

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.”

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, 1860

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

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

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.”

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

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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

Join Us Today

If you are a member of the Princeton community who is concerned about free speech and academic freedom, we urge you to subscribe to updates today by clicking on this link. Others are also invited to subscribe. Subscriptions are free. Subscribers receive email updates when new material is posted, when we schedule events, and when there are important developments regarding free speech at Princeton.    Subscribe now

Alumni United for Freedom of Speech 

Editor's note: Below is an excerpt of an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, followed by an excerpt of a press release announcing the launching of the Alumni Free Speech Alliance.

October 18, 2021
By Stuart Taylor, Jr. and Edward Yingling
The Wall Street Journal

Excerpt: Readers of these pages are well aware that free speech, academic freedom and viewpoint diversity are in big trouble at U.S. universities. But many of those worried over the state of campuses are almost resigned to the idea that the forces of illiberal intolerance have won. The fight is far from over. On Oct. 18, five alumni groups are announcing the creation of an organization to stand up for open inquiry: the Alumni Free Speech Alliance.

AFSA’s founders are groups of graduates of Cornell University, Davidson College, Princeton University (our alma mater), the University of Virginia, and Washington and Lee University. Our allied organizations are the Cornell Free Speech Alliance, Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse, Princetonians for Free Speech, the Jefferson Council (composed of UVA alumni) and the Generals Redoubt (W&L alumni).

AFSA’s member groups are nonpartisan and will protect the rights of faculty and students across the ideological spectrum. Our goal is to ally with scores of as-yet-unformed alumni groups around the country. Why alumni? Because with rare exceptions, everyone else may feel too exposed to attacks to take a stand against campus culture.

Click here for link to full op-ed

Press Release: Alumni Organize in Defense of College Free Speech

October 18, 2021
Alumni Free Speech Alliance

Excerpt: Millions of college and university alumni around the country are dismayed by the intolerance of unpopular viewpoints at their alma maters, and now some have begun to fight back.

Alumni have organized groups at five of America’s most prestigious higher-ed institutions -- Cornell University, Davidson College, Princeton University, the University of Virginia, and the Washington & Lee University – to defend free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity on college campuses. Today these groups are announcing that they have joined forces under the banner of the Alumni Free Speech Alliance to launch a national effort to mobilize alumni.

“Free speech and academic freedom are critical to the advancement of knowledge and to the success of our colleges and universities,” said Edward Yingling, a co-founder of the Princeton alumni group. “Yet these basic principles are under attack today at schools across the country.”

Click here for link to full press release

Latest News and Commentary


October 12, 2021
By Marie-Rose Sheinerman
The Daily Princetonian

Excerpt: A lawsuit filed by classics professor Joshua Katz that alleged “viewpoint discrimination” against him by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) was dismissed in court on Oct. 5. The judge found that the suit failed to meet the requisite standards for jurisdiction in federal court in New Jersey, but did not rule on the merits of Katz’s claims. The decision leaves the door open for Katz to refile his suit against the ACLS in New York, where the society is based.

Katz alleged that after the society invited him to serve as a volunteer delegate to the Union Académique Internationale, an academic conference in Paris, it revoked the invite “solely because he expressed views that, although fully reasonable and protected by ordinary principles of academic freedom, offend the ideological sensibilities of some in academia.”


October 11, 2021
By Rachel Bunyan and Ariel Zilber
Daily Mail

Excerpt: Thousands of people have registered for a remote lecture by a geophysicist at Princeton University after the MIT canceled it due to pressure from “woke” students because the professor argued that academic evaluations should be based on merit, not racial “equity.”

University of Chicago professor Dorian Abbot was denied the opportunity to give the prestigious Carlson Lecture, which is devoted to “new results in climate science” and hosted by MIT's Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. But Princeton University decided to host Abbot's lecture via Zoom on October 21 - the day it was scheduled to be given at the MIT. Princeton professor Robert P. George, who has publicly backed Abbot since his lecture was “shockingly and shamefully canceled,” said the university has since had to expand the Zoom quota for the lecture as thousands of people have registered.

October 10, 2021
By Emma Green
The Atlantic

Editor’s note: The below Eisgruber interview occurs at a time of great controversy about the unremitting attacks on free speech in Princeton’s official freshman orientation and the University’s dismal free speech ranking by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education last month.


Emma Green: You have carved out a position on academic speech and freedom that is a little countercultural. In a recent speech at Penn, you brought up a Princeton professor who, during a class, used a racial slur. There are many people who believe that those kinds of words should never be permitted in an academic context. Why is it worth it to defend the use of these kinds of words?

Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber: I care passionately about the position you just described. Right now, everybody insists on dividing free speech and inclusivity from one another. They insist on a version of the free-speech ideal that is just about unconstrained expression. But we are not here just to have unfettered expression. We are a part of a truth-seeking enterprise. We try to make a difference in the world by, among other things, distinguishing better and worse arguments.

Green: You’ve also talked about your concern about the shrinking space for conservative ideas on campus. Robert George is an example of someone you’ve praised publicly, who has deeply held, well-considered viewpoints that I think would be hard for some students to countenance—his stance on LGBTQ and transgender identity chief among them. I wonder why you think it’s worth it to have a professor like him on campus.

Eisgruber:  It is clearly worth it.

October 4, 2021
By Donald Downs, Robert George, and Keith Whittington
Chronicle of Higher Education

Excerpt: Many professors have no idea what to do when a mob is howling for their heads. They have never been through such an ordeal before, and are naturally frightened and rattled. Fortunately, many American colleges and universities have policies in place to protect the academic freedom of research scholars and instructional faculty members. Moreover, some professors have the benefit of tenure protections that can hamper administrative attempts to summarily dismiss them, if only to placate the mob. But those protections are not enough if academics do not know how to make use of them.

We offer the following advice as members of the newly formed Academic Freedom Alliance, made up of more than 400 faculty members who span the nation and the ideological spectrum. The group exists to provide moral, strategic, and legal assistance to faculty members whose academic freedom and/or job status have been harmed or jeopardized improperly for something they have said or written.


September 25, 2021
By Alex Zarechnak
The Princeton Tory

Excerpt: Dear Class of ’25:

 Did you appreciate the clever way you were introduced to Princeton? Did you recognize that your orientation video was a non-advertised test, disguised as a woke clarion call to social justice activism at Princeton? Did you catch the subtle challenge to abandon critical thinking and instead embrace the camaraderie of bashing a distinguished Classics professor? Were you able to get past the faux-indoctrination and manipulation and realize that Princeton was actually trying to teach an important lesson, namely that even incoming fresh-persons have the responsibility to think for themselves and to distinguish the trendy from the true? Princeton realizes that this is a skill that will be critical for you to hone and develop and unleash on those trying to put blinders on you, not only at Princeton, but well beyond graduation. 

National and International

October 18, 2021
By Bari Weiss

Excerpt: A lot of people want to convince you that you need a Ph.D. or a law degree or dozens of hours of free time to read dense texts about critical theory to understand the woke movement and its worldview. You do not. You simply need to believe your own eyes and ears.

In this ideology, speech is violence. But violence, when carried out by the right people in pursuit of a just cause, is not violence at all. In this ideology, bullying is wrong, unless you are bullying the right people, in which case it’s very, very good. In this ideology, education is not about teaching people how to think, it’s about reeducating them in what to think. In this ideology, the need to feel safe trumps the need to speak truthfully. The goal is to send a message to everyone else: Step out of line and you are next.

October 17, 2021
By Nathan Bernard
The Intercept

Excerpt: Bates College administration pressured campus newspaper The Bates Student on Wednesday to remove an article from its website featuring interviews with five Bates employees trying to unionize adjunct faculty and non-managerial staff, citing low pay, poor working conditions, and declining staff retention.

The students’ original October 13 article detailed dire working conditions during the more severe months of the pandemic, Bates administration’s use of intimidation tactics, and the benefits of unionization. According to staff members at The Bates Student, the paper’s managing editor, who wrote the story, took her article down at the behest of Bates’ media relations specialist Mary Pols and the administration the same day it was posted. The following day, an edited version of the story was published to The Bates Student’s website. In the new story, pro-union information and worker quotes were replaced with anti-union talking points and comments from Bates administration.

October 15, 2021
By Samuel Goldman
The Week

Excerpt: Universities are surprisingly popular places. In surveys of public confidence, they fare better than banks, big corporations, and the entertainment industry — and much better than journalists. While only about a third of Americans have a degree, colleges play an outsize role in popular culture, too. That includes the massive collegiate athletics industry as well as niche products like The Chair.

Attitudes toward higher education are sharply partisan, though. A Pew study in August found 76 percent of Democrats but only 34 percent of Republicans believe colleges have a positive social impact. And that difference is reflected in two recent controversies about academic freedom, one at Yale Law School (YLS) and one at the University of Georgia. Disparate in some respects, both incidents involve subversion of the university's core principle of academic freedom in pursuit of knowledge.

October 14, 2021
By Aaron Terr
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Excerpt: Free speech is in jeopardy yet again at Yale University, where law school administrators met with a student multiple times to pressure him to apologize for language he used in an email that offended some of his classmates. The incident illustrates how university officials can seek to intimidate students into silence and conformity through obscure procedures and veiled threats of punishment.

Put yourself in the shoes of a law student. You’re repeatedly told you should issue a public apology if you want the matter to “go away.” You’re told the issue might “linger” even after you graduate and that the “legal community is a small one.” And right before you leave one of these meetings, the administrators imply that the matter could somehow wind up before the state bar. A bar that requires you to pass a searching review of your character and fitness.


October 14, 2021
By Samuel Abrams
American Enterprise Institute

Excerpt: One of the hallmarks of Jewish tradition is its intense focus on debate and disagreement. Unfortunately, it appears that this value is being lost on many of the nation’s younger Jews — namely those currently enrolled in colleges and universities.

A just-released survey from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education captures the voices of over 37,000 students at 159 colleges and provides empirical insight into the current state of speech and expression on campus today. The picture is not good. The data show that one-third of all students think trying to disrupt and shout down speakers when they visit campuses is sometimes or always acceptable. Among Jewish students surveyed, 40% reported feeling this way. Two-thirds of Jewish students — compared to just about half of students nationally — answered that blocking other students from attending a campus speech is justifiable.