A Civil-Rights Icon Urges Law Grads to Defend Free Speech

Eleanor Holmes Norton used a commencement address at Georgetown to argue that securing positive, lasting change in America requires letting all sides have their say.

Mike Segar / Reuters

This month the graduating class at Georgetown Law School marked commencement with a speech by non-voting D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, whose résumé is as impressive as any in the House of Representatives.

Born in 1937, Norton received a masters in American studies and a law degree at Yale and traveled to the South for the Mississippi Freedom Summer as an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After clerking for a federal judge, she became the assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. And in 1970, she represented 60 women in a lawsuit against Newsweek that successfully forced the magazine to overturn its practice of barring women from reporter jobs.

She became the head of the New York City Human Rights Commission in 1970, Jimmy Carter appointed her to head the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1977, and as a Georgetown law faculty member in the 1980s she joined the protest movement against apartheid in South Africa.

Her commencement speech focused on the importance of free speech.

Norton praised the Parkland teenagers for their activism on the issue of gun control. But she is worried. She believes survey data on free speech shows that today’s college students are no longer willing to defend speech that they don’t like. She proudly cited instances when she personally fought for the rights of racists to speak. And she called on the graduating lawyers of Georgetown to use their knowledge of the law to teach others of their generation that hearing all sides of arguments is still critical in American society.

In fact, she believes that lasting change cannot be achieved, that it will never be secure, unless the public is won over in a way that requires all sides to be heard.

Here is a transcript of relevant passages from her speech:

Change, especially change that requires legislative solutions, will not occur easily given our vast, inherently disharmonious, and increasingly polarized country. Change will only occur if we make the highest, best and most peaceful use of the First Amendment.  

...Yet there is recent disquieting evidence on college campuses of intolerance of speech at odds with the progressive views many in your generation and I share... For example, a significant number of college students believe that “hate speech” is not protected by the First Amendment. Fifty-one percent believe that shouting down a controversial speaker so he or she could not be heard was acceptable — 63 percent were Democrats and 38 percent were Republicans, but bear in mind that the most controversial speakers on campuses today are from the far right.

Will the 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 side to be heard?

...our society periodically must relearn the reasons the Framers added the Bill of Rights as a vital addendum to the nation’s founding document. Inevitably, we periodically get the challenge to apply the Bill of Rights to conditions the Framers could not have imagined. 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.

I do not mean re-teaching the meaning of the First Amendment by bringing cases. Few lawyers will have the opportunity I had as a young lawyer, not long out of law school and the civil rights movement, to argue a case in the Supreme Court representing an unabashedly racist organization barred by a prior restraint court order from appearing again after engaging in racist and anti-Semitic remarks at a rally. Or another I argued in the New York courts when liberal mayor of New York John Lindsay denied notorious Alabama Governor George Wallace a permit to speak at a public facility, Shea Stadium.

...My direct clients were a minority in American society, proselytizing racists with whom I had nothing in common. Yet it was clear that the ultimate client was the First Amendment itself.

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 it will be lasting. They persisted against their adversaries until they persuaded the country that they should prevail.

To be sure, sometimes the changemakers have pursued change using lawyers and judges, like Georgetown’s many alumni. Even so, ultimately, changemakers, acting with vital help from the law, must persuade the democratic majority to accept change, even if they won it in the courts.

Who is in the best position to help not only young people, but also the American people, to relearn the purposes and uses of the First Amendment for these times and in our polarized society? I believe I am speaking to them now as the 2018 Georgetown Law graduates go on to become leaders of their communities.

The First Amendment as a tool for 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 and language, offering reasons why hearing the other side of arguments is critical to change our society… 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 need to accept the change we are after.

Norton’s unabridged remarks can be read here.