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Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein Delivers Remarks at the Justice Department’s Forum on Free Speech in Higher Education


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good afternoon.  Thank you for joining us on Constitution Day to discuss a topic central to the rule of law in America. I want to say a special thanks to Jesse Panuccio, our Acting Associate Attorney General, and the team that created a superb agenda and invited so many thoughtful speakers.

More than a decade elapsed between the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, a decade during which our nation’s citizens devoted significant attention to the question of how best to secure the blessings of liberty.

On this 231st anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, we properly praise the written document for establishing the framework of liberty. But the Constitution obviously did not write itself, nor did it take effect automatically. The drafters engaged in lengthy debates about first principles, and the people carefully considered the terms before accepting them.

Their decision reflected free thought, and it required free speech. As Jesse described it this morning, freedom of speech was “a precondition of the American republic.”

Listening to contentious debates and engaging rhetorically with opponents is at the heart of this great nation. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “[W]herever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; [and] whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

Thanks to the open exchange of ideas and concerns, a consensus developed in 1787 that America needed a new form of government. The founders chose a democratic republic governed by the rule of law.

The rule of law was the subject of Abraham Lincoln’s first published speech. He prophetically titled it, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” The year was 1838. The founding fathers had passed away, and Lincoln was alarmed by sharp political divisions and rising passions in our young republic. He advocated building respect for the law as a way to bind the society together.

Two decades later, in 1858, Lincoln engaged in a series of seven lengthy debates with his Senate opponent, Stephen Douglas. The opening speaker addressed the audience for one hour. The opponent took an hour and a half to reply. Then the first debater spent another half hour to respond.

People disagreed – sometimes vehemently – but they listened patiently, and they learned about opposing arguments.

That sometimes-messy process remains essential because our system of government is not self-executing. It relies on wisdom and self-restraint. In a democratic republic, liberty is protected by cultural norms as well as by constitutional text.

Theodore Roosevelt observed that the survival of a republic depends on the character of the average citizen. He said that “[t]he average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed.”

Debates and disagreements about public policy and political leadership are essential to building good citizens.

The question for today’s forum is how to respond when college administrators seek to prohibit or punish speech protected by the Constitution. 

On college campuses, students hear about different perspectives, test conflicting arguments, and learn how to decide for themselves what is true, what is right, and what is just.  To do that properly, colleges must expose students to a range of alternatives.

Students need to learn how to consider ideas that they do not like.  That educational project requires free speech.

Yet we repeatedly hear about examples of hostility to free speech and viewpoint diversity on college campuses.  Professors, students, and guest speakers are shouted down and even physically attacked for expressing their views.

As Attorney General Jeff Sessions said this morning, “Suppression of competing voices is not the American way.”

Our next guest speaker brings considerable expertise and experience to this forum. A graduate of Vanderbilt University and the New York University School of Law, Senator Lamar Alexander spent a large portion of his life in and around campuses. His mother was a school teacher, his father was a principal. He rose to become the Secretary of Education, and then a university president. While not serving in government, he worked as a lawyer and an entrepreneur.

During his successful campaign for Governor in 1978, Senator Alexander was known for walking across his home state of Tennessee, dressed in casual clothing, to engage his fellow citizens in face-to-face conversations. He repeated that approach when he ran for President in 2000, driving around the country in an SUV.

In 2002, he won election to the United States Senate, where he serves as the Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. He continues to devote considerable attention to the issue of free speech in higher education. 

Senator Alexander understands well the importance of education, and the role of free speech in supporting it.

So please welcome Senator Lamar Alexander to discuss the congressional perspective about free speech on college campuses.

Updated September 17, 2018