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

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

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.”

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

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

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

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie, 1990

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

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, 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

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin, 1722

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

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."

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.”

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

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

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

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.”

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.”

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

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

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



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


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 13, 2021
By Jordan Howell
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Excerpt: We are approaching what should be the six-year anniversary of the founding of Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham University. But rather than celebrating, students at Fordham are conducting a letter-writing campaign in the latest effort to get the student group reinstated after last year’s disappointing court ruling that allowed the university to violate its own promises and policies regarding free speech and once again deny SJP recognition based on its viewpoint, which administrators claimed would lead to “polarization” on campus.

A quick recap: On Nov. 19, 2015, students submitted an application to form a chapter of SJP at Fordham. Almost exactly one year later on Nov. 17, 2016, the application was approved by the student government. However, that decision was overturned by a Fordham dean, in direct contravention of the school’s policies and promises. FIRE urges Fordham, for once and for all, to end this campaign of censorship.

October 13, 2021
By Brian Jones
The Washington Post

Excerpt: Reports of escalating hostility and threats of violence at school board meetings across the nation — stemming from fights over masking policies and school curriculums — have recently made headlines. I thought of those parents after the National School Boards Association addressed a letter to President Biden requesting assistance from federal law enforcement in investigating threats, and after Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the FBI would coordinate with local leaders and law enforcement to address a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers and staff.”

A word of caution to those who would blithely cast angry parents as a threat, or the act of disrupting open public meetings as domestic terrorism. In the vast territory of civic anger and frustration lies the opportunity for growth and enlightenment, and better decision-making among public servants willing to listen.

October 13, 2021
By Giulia Heyward
New York Times

Excerpt: In a direct challenge to the hallowed tradition of tenure, Georgia’s public university system will now let its colleges’ administrations remove a tenured professor with little to no faculty input. The Board of Regents on Wednesday approved the new policy, which is the only one of its kind in the country, according to the American Association of University Professors.

“Georgia is a huge outlier now, because that’s the whole point of tenure: it includes due process protections,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the professors’ association, which is threatening to censure the university system. “There should now be a new word for it in Georgia, because tenure will not mean tenure there.” Previously, the process for removing tenured professors included a peer review process with other faculty. Now, professors at 25 of its 26 public universities can be removed after consecutively failing two annual reviews.


October 12, 2021
By Ben Cadigan
Badger Herald

Excerpt: The Wisconsin Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges held a hearing regarding Critical Race Theory’s role in higher education Wednesday, March 22. Republicans control the committee, but experts on both sides of the debate were invited to speak at the hearing.

The hearing is part of a GOP push to pass Senate Bill 411 regarding anti-racism and anti-sexism pupil instruction and training for employees of school districts and independent charter schools. The bill would ban seven concepts in curriculums, ranging from “One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” to “An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for acts committed in the past by other individuals of the same race or sex,” according to the Wisconsin State Legislature. Schools that don’t follow the guidelines in the proposed bill face a 10% annual cut from state funding.

October 12, 2021
By Dylan Partner
Daily Collegian

Excerpt: If you participate in contemporary political discourse, you’re bound to come across one of the most widespread and controversial phrases of the day: “cancel culture.” Part of its popularity stems from its apparent versatility. That is, people can use the term for just about anything that particularly upsets them. The inevitable consequence of using a term for everything is that it ends up meaning nothing.

Cancel culture individualizes a much larger, systemic issue. The act of “canceling” is generally something that is undertaken against an individual person, while a suppressive academic culture is something different. If scholars fear that they will be targeted for publicly pursuing an idea, either through policy or through social sanction, most won’t speak up and get “canceled.” Rather, social coercion will make them either stop pursuing controversial topics or take their work underground, resulting in a loss of knowledge for society.