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

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.”

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

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

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

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.”

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

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.”

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

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, 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

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

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

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.”

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."

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.”

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

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."

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

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie, 1990

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

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, 1860

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

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

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November 24, 2021

Letter from Princeton Open Campus Coalition to Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber

By Myles McKnight '23, President, Abigail Anthony, ’23, and 60 other members of the POCC, whose names were redacted as a condition for the public release of this letter
Dear President Eisgruber:

We, the undersigned students, write on behalf of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), a group of undergraduates committed to the philosophy that a university cannot fulfill its mission without protecting and honoring free speech, robust discourse, and viewpoint diversity. These ideals––which provide more than merely administrative directives––form the foundation of an intellectual culture in which the pursuit of truth can be fully actualized. We write to express our concern regarding violations of the institutional neutrality required for these ideals to flourish. We focus on one recent and particularly egregious violation––namely, a statement by Dean Amaney Jamal released to the student body of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) in response to the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict. . . .

Unfortunately, recent events at our University suggest that the neutrality principle has been dangerously dishonored. In the case of Dean Jamal’s November 20th statement regarding the Rittenhouse verdict, the significant factual errors (while embarrassing) are not the cause of our protest [footnote omitted]. What motivates our letter is a concern about the implications of a University administrator, speaking in her official capacity, promulgating to an entire community of students her moral evaluation of the outcome of a highly publicized and controversial trial.

Click here for link to full letter

Latest News and Commentary


November 30, 2021
By Academic Freedom Alliance Press Release

Excerpt: The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) sent a letter to the University of Rochester on behalf of Professor David Bleich, who has been suspended from teaching for his use of the n-word in an English class. Bleich used the word first by reading from a short story that had been assigned to the class and then by reading from an article by Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy, who is a prominent expert on the history and use of the n-word.

“Professor Bleich’s case is a prime example of an increasingly prevalent violation of free speech and academic freedom on campuses today, in which certain words—often words that are culturally or historically significant—are banned from use even in relevant scholarly contexts,” said Samantha Harris, the attorney representing Professor Bleich.


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.


National and International

December 6, 2021
By Hannah Natanson
The Washington Post

Excerpt: Matthew Hawn checked his phone to see if the wait was finally over.
It had been five months since he was fired for teaching about White privilege at a high school in rural Tennessee. Two months since he had fought to regain his job at an emotional three-day hearing, becoming a symbol of the acrimonious debate over the way race, racism and history should be taught in America’s schools.

His firing comes amid a tsunami of conservative outrage about critical race theory, an academic framework for examining systemic racism in the United States that educators contend is rarely taught in public schools. Hawn said he’d never heard of critical race theory until he was accused of teaching it.


December 6, 2021
By American Council of Trustees and Alumni
American Council of Trustees and Alumni

Excerpt: The alumni group Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse (DFTD) was founded in 2018 to monitor the state of free expression, diversity of viewpoints, and ideological balance at Davidson College [and] to undertake research to help clarify whether perceived problems in these key areas are real. A Fall 2021 survey of major donors to Davidson College, virtually all of whom are alumni, revealed an urgent problem. The following summary of the Fall 2021 Davidson student survey findings presents the first available empirical data on the extent to which obstacles to freedom of expression are real and pervasive at Davidson.

December 3, 2021
By Eileen O'Grady
Concord Monitor

Excerpt: Just one year after New Hampshire legislators first introduced a bill that banned the teaching or discussion of “divisive concepts” like systemic racism, another bill will be debated this legislative session that would take those restrictions further.

The proposed bill, HB 1255, titled “An Act Relative to Teachers’ Loyalty,” seeks to ban public school teachers from promoting any theory that depicts U.S. history or its founding in a negative light, including the idea that the country was founded on racism. The bill updates a piece of Cold War-era law that bans educators from advocating for communism in schools, and adds additional bans on advocating for socialism and Marxism. “No teacher shall advocate any doctrine or theory promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States of America in New Hampshire public schools which does not include the worldwide context of now outdated and discouraged practices.”

December 3, 2021
By Adam Goldstein
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Excerpt: A guest lecture on Ethiopia’s civil war at the University of South Carolina has been indefinitely postponed by the inviting professor after the choice of lecturer was criticized on social media by voices sympathetic to the Ethiopian government.

The disinvitation of Kjetil Tronvoll, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Norway’s Oslo New University College, sounds a lot like the disinvitation of Dorian Abbot from MIT, with activists looking to isolate Tronvill and stop him from speaking anywhere. But it also has elements of Emerson College’s recent censorship of anti-Chinese government stickers, where apologists for a brutal regime are leveraging anti-speech elements in Western culture to accomplish the censorship those governments achieve with force at home. The driving force behind that decision remains a threat to free expression and the culture necessary to sustain it, and we should be aware of the pattern it represents.


December 2, 2021
By 12 News

Excerpt: The Paradise Valley Unified School District Governing Board unanimously voted on Thursday to not renew an employment contract for Horizon High School's principal in the midst of a controversial book assignment.

Parents notified the district last month that they were shocked to learn students had been assigned to read "So You've Been Publicly Shamed" for an AP English class over the summer. The 2015 book by Jon Ronson contains interviews with internet personalities who have been publicly shamed online. One section of the book quotes an infamous 2008 article published in News of the World about a "Nazi-style orgy in a torture dungeon." The part of the book that disturbed Thomas Morton, whose teenage daughter attends Horizon High, references an internet thread about a man who was in love with his dog and engaged in acts of bestiality.