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Supreme Court of the United States

Free Speech Through the Generations

By Charles Snow posted on:
November 6, 2020

“No other trial, except that of Jesus,” writes one author, “has left so vivid an impression on the imagination of Western man ….”  The trial of this man has been called “the most famous free speech case of all time ….” 

Socrates was often at odds with the men of Athens, Greece. In 399 B.C., he stood trial for “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state” and “corrupting the youth.” 

Ultimately, he was found guilty, sentenced to death, and died by hemlock poison. As one scholar writes, Socrates’s death “produced the first martyr for free speech.”

Fast forward over 2,000 years from 399 B.C. in Athens, Greece, to Berkeley, California. Free speech was becoming a hotly debated topic on college campuses, particularly at the University of California, Berkeley.

UC Berkeley was the birthplace of the campus Free Speech Movement in the turbulent era of the 1960s. The University of California had adopted policies promoting political and religious neutrality on campus. As such, students could not speak on campus property without receiving permission from the administration. 

To circumvent that rule, students often gathered outside one of the main entrances to campus in order to speak about the injustices of racism in America, as well as the Vietnam War. But when university officials expanded the area around campus in which speech was prohibited, students fought back, helping to ignite the campus free speech movement. 

Debating Speech Today

Today, students on campus still must remain vigilant against the speech police among college and university officials. 

Take ADF client Chike Uzuegbunam. When he was a student at Georgia Gwinnett College, officials told him he was not allowed to peacefully share the Gospel with other interested students in a public area on campus, unless he got advance permission and reserved one of two miniscule “speech zones.” Chike did what they asked, but campus officials ordered him to stop speaking yet again.

After ADF filed a lawsuit on Chike’s behalf, the college changed its policy to undermine his case, claiming it should be free from any consequences for violating Chike’s constitutional rights. Two lower courts agreed with college. And now his case is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since its founding in 2006, the ADF Center for Academic Freedom has earned an almost 90 percent success rate challenging colleges and universities when they violate their students’ First Amendment rights. That’s resulted in more than 400 victories for free speech on campus. 

Even so, students’ rights are still being violated on campus. And free speech doesn’t seem so free to many college students. Increasingly, the driving force behind the chilling of speech on campus is the students themselves. 

A recent survey conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) revealed students “alarming willingness to shut down certain speakers ….” Most alarming, 21 percent of Ivy League students (who are supposedly the top students in America) think it is acceptable to use violence to stop speech they disagree with on campus. Is there any wonder why students are self-censoring? 

Student demands—exhibit A in the budding “cancel culture”—also extend to their professors. Evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein knows this. So does ADF client Dr. Nicholas Meriwether, who can attest to what happens when college and university officials give in to students’ unreasonable ultimatums. 

Hope in the Fight

If we take anything from the history of free speech, it’s that this freedom will always be contested from one generation to the next. That doesn’t change. What changes is who is doing the contesting.  

That’s why movements like the Philadelphia Statement are so important. The statement’s organizers recognize that truly open discourse is increasingly rare. Important debates are being blocked. Free speech is being chilled. Everyday Americans are growing more and more afraid to speak up. 

As Frederick Douglass said, “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.”

If you want to see freedom of thought and expression preserved for this generation and the next, please read and sign the Philadelphia Statement. Join the movement to protect free speech and promote civil discourse. 


Charles Snow

Charles Snow

Contributing Writer

Charles is a Tennessee native and lover of books and basketball.

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