Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton Highlights Importance of Campus Free Speech in Commencement Address

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Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) argued for the importance of free speech on campus in her recent commencement address at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Delegate Norton, who represents the District of Columbia, made a plea to college students who are questioning the value of the First Amendment. She highlighted a study by the Brookings Institute that argued that “freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses.”

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.

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.

Norton highlighted a statistic from the Brookings survey that revealed that an overwhelming majority of students who believe that “hate speech” ought to be illegal are on the left. It is conservative speakers, not progressive speakers, who typically face censorship campaigns.

The delegate argued that the graduating lawyers at Georgetown University Law Center should know better than most that there are many reasons why the opinion of one’s political opponents should be heard.

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.

Norton wrapped up her thoughts on campus free speech by arguing that lasting change cannot be brought about by shutting down certain political viewpoints. “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,” Norton argued. “They persisted against their adversaries until they persuaded the country that they should prevail.”


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