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

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 Washington
George Washington, 1783

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

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."

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

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

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."

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

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.”

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."

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.”

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

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie, 1990

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

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin, 1722

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

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

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.”

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 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two recent developments show free speech is in serious trouble at Princeton. This week, the “2021 College Free Speech Ranking,” published by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), placed Princeton dead last in the Ivy League on free speech and a dismal 134 out of 159 colleges and universities ranked. The FIRE press release and link to the ranking can be accessed here. This follows the controversial Princeton orientation for the class of 2025, which contained an official presentation that denigrated free speech.

The FIRE ranking was based on surveys of students, plus an analysis of schools’ written policies on speech on which Princeton received a negative “red light” rating. The survey results show that the great majority of the schools rated have serious problems on free speech, and yet Princeton is near the bottom of this barrel of rotting apples. For example, in the survey, only 34 percent of the students from all schools thought it was never acceptable to shout down a speaker on campus. So, 66 percent thought it at least sometimes right to shout down speakers. Over 80 percent of the students said they self-censor in the classroom, on campus, and online. The answers to other questions show most students at almost all schools have a total lack of understanding of what free speech means.

Click here to read the full editorial


Princetonians for Free Speech original content:

A ranking, based on a survey of students, released today by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), put Princeton dead last in the Ivy League and a dismal 134 out of 159 colleges and universities surveyed. Princeton has also fallen in the ranking, as last year it was fourth in the Ivy League. A FIRE press release with a link to the report, “2021 College Free Speech Ranking,” can be accessed here.

Click here for link to full article

Latest News and Commentary


September 22, 2021
By Zachary Shevin and AG McGee
The Daily Princetonian

Excerpt: Princeton’s orientation programming is packed. First-years are sorted into various small group programs, participate in dozens of events, and attend several trainings designed to help them get their bearings as college students. This year featured a new addition to the traditional programming. First-years watched a recording of a virtual “roundtable” discussion which examined a gallery entitled “To Be Known and Be Heard: Systemic Racism and Princeton University.” In the recording, professors examined documents concerning racist moments in Princeton’s history.

In response, University professors John Londregan and Sergiu Klainerman penned an article in the New York Post criticizing the mandatory event, dubbing it “one-sided.” As small group orientation leaders, we watched the video ourselves. After reading Londregan and Klainerman’s article, we are confused as to whether they watched the same recording. Perhaps the larger issue is that Londregan and Klainerman construe truth-seeking differently than the rest of us.


September 21, 2021
By Princetonians for Free Speech

John Rose, associate director of the Arete Initiative at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, joined us on our latest podcast to discuss his recent Wall Street Journal column about how he nurtures true civil discourse in his classroom and what he has learned from the experience. While helping to coordinate Arete’s programming, Rose teaches courses in happiness and human flourishing, Christian ethics, conservatism, and political polarization. He was interviewed by Lawrence Haas, a board member of Princetonians for Free Speech.

Rose revealed that he learned – from speaking with students privately in one-on-one settings – that many of them wanted to engage in honest debate, to explore all sides of complicated issues, but were afraid to do so. When he surveyed 110 students anonymously this spring, 68 percent of them revealed that they censor themselves on certain political topics, even with good friends. Nevertheless, Rose found a way to nurture honest debate in his classroom. After establishing rules that, among other things, allowed for the airing of differing opinions and assumed good will on all sides, he watched his students “flourish,” as he put it. They discussed such hot-button issues as critical race theory and abortion. But, as he acknowledges, whether other teachers, at Duke and on other campuses, try to follow his lead remains very much an open question.

September 20, 2021
By Dan McLaughlin
National Review

Excerpt: Sean Wilentz is a proud liberal and sometimes a hard-edged Democratic partisan. But he is also a distinguished Princeton University historian whose academic work is broadly respected across the political spectrum. That has not stopped some progressives from attacking his work for reasons more of politics than scholarship. He has recently found himself in their crosshairs for his vocal criticism — along with that of other leading liberal historians — of aspects of the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project.

In a thoughtful but unsparing essay titled “The 1619 Project and Living in Truth” in the Czech historical journal Opera Historica, Wilentz has fired another salvo against the 1619 Project, its editor and lead essayist Nikole Hannah-Jones, Times Magazine editor in chief Jake Silverstein, and more broadly, the intellectual climate of “anti-racist” politics that produce warped history while intimidating serious scholars into silence. Wilentz is scathing on Hannah-Jones’s preposterous and unsupported claim, in the lead essay, that “one of the primary reasons” for the American Revolution and Declaration of Independence was American colonial fear that the British would restrict or abolish slavery.

September 20, 2021
By Kristal Grant
Daily Princetonian

Content Warning: This article contains mention of homophobic and misogynistic language.

It seems that at least once a semester, Princeton’s campus is plagued by the same conservative Christian group that has links to the Key of David Christian Center. Following last Thursday’s “demonstration,” the Pride Alliance, Princeton’s only queer advocacy student group on campus, held a reflection space. Several students (many of whom were first-years) expressed the fear, loneliness, and grief they experienced after witnessing this hate group spout homophobic and misogynistic language, including slurs and insults. 

Several students, specifically queer and femme students, were referred to as “homos,” “whores,” and “sinners.” We at the Pride Alliance are frustrated by the University's emphasis on “free expression” in responding to this demonstration, as highlighted by their explanation that “free expression facilitators” were present. This emphasis runs parallel to President Eisgruber’s notion of free speech, which he has used as an excuse not to take meaningful action in past instances of racist and bigoted speech by community members. We have learned from Eisgruber’s justifications that this “freedom of speech” which the University often champions simply functions as a disguise for the protection of hate speech.

September 20, 2021
By Dillion Gallagher
The Daily Princetonian

Excerpt: In the wake of our return to campus this semester, Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Princetonian Emma Treadway directed each of us to rethink our campus culture. In light of this directive, cancel culture seems the ideal tradition to tear down. We have to recognize cancel culture for how corrosive it is and understand the constructive principles that can replace it. Then, we can commit ourselves to pursuing them, despite how difficult it might be. Those on the political left have to listen up: Stop thinking that cancelling people holds them accountable.

Cancel culture is not a substitute for accountability, mainly because it doesn’t carry any weight for those supposedly being held accountable. The reputations we build with and among our peers, friends, and colleagues are our first real contribution to Princeton. If someone’s cancellation is successful, it rids them of that contribution and, therefore, any real stake in our community.


National and International

September 22, 2021
By Adam Steinbaugh
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Excerpt: A public high school in Hudson, Ohio, has managed a remarkable feat: censoring a college course and — thanks to a mayor’s grandstanding and false claims that a book of writing prompts is “child pornography” — leading police and prosecutors to investigate the class. Today, a coalition of civil liberties organizations led by FIRE is sending a letter to the high school and local law enforcement explaining that the high school’s administration is violating the First Amendment and state law.

High school seniors at one Cleveland-area school, Hudson High, can take an introductory college writing class offered by Hiram College, a local private college. The textbook for the course — “642 Things to Write About” — is a collection of hundreds of writing prompts. When a parent of a Hiram High senior flipped through the book, she was shocked to learn that some of the prompts involve risqué material — none of them, it turns out, were actually used in the class.

September 22, 2021
By Frederick Hess

Excerpt: If your local library was sponsoring book burnings, you’d have some issues that would need to be addressed before you got around to boosting the budget. If your local sanitation workers were dumping trash into your driveway instead of picking it up, discussions of new funding would have to wait. Yet, even as college campuses across the land evince a growing hostility to free thought, the Biden administration and a Democratic Congress are racing to shovel untold billions of new dollars into higher education—without even pausing to acknowledge the problem.

And the problem is profound. If higher education has a Hippocratic Oath, a counterpart to medicine’s “Do no harm,” it’s “Don’t stifle the exchange of ideas.” After all, that’s what colleges and universities are for—to be places where knowledge is acquired, shared, and stored. The fundamental purpose of higher education is compromised if campus leaders cease to embrace that mission.


September 22, 2021
By Teresa Manning
New York Post

Excerpt: This summer, Rep. Greg Murphy (R-NC) introduced the Campus Free Speech Restoration Act, designed to enhance free expression in American universities. Murphy’s bill defines “expressive activities” to include peaceful assembly, speaking and listening, and protects them from “improperly restrictive” institutional incursions, such as speech codes, bias response teams and “free speech zones.”

However, no constitutional provision is self-enforcing. To give it effect, an injured party must sue a school. But after filing suit, that party often endures years of “lawfare” that public universities greet with a yawn. Individual lawsuits against universities are simply pebbles thrown against the citadel. Murphy’s bill addresses this problem with two innovations. First, it authorizes the Department of Education to condition Title IV federal funding on First Amendment compliance at public schools. Second, the bill creates a new position in the Department of Education to oversee the status of free speech on campus and to enforce the First Amendment.

September 22, 2021
By Will Creeley
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Excerpt: Common sense tells us that when it comes to rules, there’s a big difference between the grade school playground and the public university campus. Conduct codes appropriate for high school freshmen — let alone fifth graders — might not fly for college freshmen. So why should courts impose speech standards designed for grade schoolers on public college students? Well, they shouldn’t, as FIRE argued in an amicus curiae brief filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit last week.

In a lawsuit filed this February, Speech First challenged the University of Central Florida’s (UCF) discriminatory harassment policy, computer policy, and bias response team. In its July order, the district court correctly issued a preliminary injunction preventing UCF from enforcing its wildly unconstitutional computer policy, which broadly barred students from sending “harassing or hate messages.” But the district court’s analysis of UCF’s harassment policy then veered sharply off course.


September 21, 2021
By Jeff Zeman
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Excerpt: In June, the Supreme Court explained in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. that courts should be skeptical when public grade schools attempt to regulate off-campus speech, lest school administrators control “all the speech a student utters during the full 24-hour day.”

The Court’s ruling has direct implications for another pending case involving a Colorado high school student who was expelled for an off-campus, after-hours Snapchat post. Before Mahanoy was decided, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado dismissed the student’s claims that his First Amendment and due process rights had been violated, granting the school broad power to regulate student speech regardless of where or when it is uttered. On Sept. 16, FIRE — joined by the Cato Institute — filed a brief of amici curiae in the case of C1.G v. Siegfried, in support of the student’s appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.