Rep. Holmes Norton latest policymaker to highlight importance of campus free speech

By May 23, 2018

In her recent and stirring commencement address to the latest graduates from Georgetown University Law Center, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton dedicated the final 10 minutes to discuss the critical importance of campus free speech.

She set the stage with the following observation:

The law has been fundamental to change in our country, especially the First Amendment. Yet there is recent disquieting evidence on college campuses of intolerance of speech at odds with the progressive views members of your generation and I share.

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Will a generation that is using protest so precociously for issues they favor, like gun safety, also exercise the tolerance that allows those who favor the opposite to at least be heard? According to the Brookings Survey this is not a rhetorical question. In fact, history shows that our society must periodically reteach and relearn the reasons the framers added the Bill of Rights as a vital addendum to the nation’s founding document.

The representative’s call to recommit to the First Amendment was importantly tailored specifically to the law graduates she was addressing.

There is some indication that this generation could use the benefit of leadership—not from my generation—but from their own generation of young lawyers, whose education equips them to explain in terms their generation can understand that the First Amendment right to speak must be reciprocal.

Later in the address, she again spoke of the unique ability of young lawyers to foster an appreciation in young advocates for the protections offered by the First Amendment.

The First Amendment as a tool to bring change is far easier to understand than appreciating the benefits when all sides are heard. That is where young lawyers can come in. Trusted members of their own generation speaking in their own terms. Speaking in their own language. Offering reasons why hearing the other side of arguments is critical to our society. After three years of law school, the class of 2018 knows that lawyers sharpen their own cases best when they have heard the other side. And we all know that allowing the other side to speak without interruption earns respect from the public—the actual party we want to accept the change we are after.

Bringing this message to law graduates is particularly important. Young lawyers are ideally situated, as the representative so eloquently set forth, to lead their generation towards a greater appreciation for the benefits free speech provides. Cultivating respect for free speech in young people is of critical importance to our country. Although using the tactic of censorship to silence political opponents is hardly unique to this latest generation, younger people appear to be increasingly exercising their political power to censor their adversaries. We must all work to reverse this disturbing trend.

In one of the most compelling moments of her address, Rep. Norton focused on the historical importance the First Amendment played in the advancement of civil rights. She poignantly explained:

Those who have brought change to our country did not win it by shutting down the other side. They won change the hard and only way that ensures that it will be lasting. They persisted against their adversaries until they persuaded the country that they should prevail.

If lasting change is what advocates are after, they cannot accomplish it through censorship. This is a key lesson at the heart of FIRE’s mission. We are so glad Rep. Norton dedicated part of her commencement address to speak on this point and we recommend watching the address yourself.

Too often, people assume that free speech on campus is a partisan issue. It is not. FIRE has a long history of coming to the aid of students and faculty censored for expressing views from across the political spectrum. We have represented or advocated on behalf of Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Democratic Socialists, and those affiliated with no party at all; Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists; environmental activists, animal rights activists, pro-choice activists, anti-rape activists, anti-war activists, and LGBT activists; free market advocates, pro-life activists, anti-immigration activists, and anti-affirmative action activists.

FIRE is proud to count Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton as a powerful ally in our efforts to foster a respect for free speech on campus. She joins a growing group of influential policymakers who have spoken out against campus censorship of late. We even published this nifty video to compile some of those efforts.

Schools: Georgetown University