“No fight for civil liberties stays won.”ACLU Founder Roger Baldwin
Freedom of speech, a cornerstone of civil liberty, requires continuous commitment and advocacy. As a distinguished member of the Council of Foreign Relations, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Harvard Law graduate, and currently the John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law Emerita at New York Law School, Nadine Strossen embodies a wealth of experience and expertise in the continuous advocacy needed to maintain the preservation of this invaluable right.
Strossen has twice been named one of America’s “100 Most Influential Lawyers” by the National Law Journal, and in 2023, the National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of more than 50 national non-profit organizations, honored her with its Judy Blume Lifetime Achievement award for Free Speech. As an educator, she received an outstanding teaching award in 2019 for her commitment to her students.
“As teachers, we all know how best to communicate and in a way that stimulates students’ thinking,” Strossen states. “We all want to maximize the student’s receptivity toward ideas, including ideas that are unfamiliar to them and are challenging to them.”
Whether wearing her teaching or advocacy hat, Strossen has maintained a mantra that when it comes to free speech, one must be able to “understand, articulate, and advocate” all plausible perspectives on all issues.
“That means arguing against freedom of speech as well as for it, with respect to every kind of controversial speech or contested situation,” Strossen said.
This mindset and emphasis on understanding all perspectives has served Strossen well when delving into the challenges facing free speech today. When looking at contemporary challenges to freedom of speech, she acknowledges that the biggest challenge has always been “disinformation and ignorance.”
“I continue to treat the question of what is the biggest threat to free speech with all seriousness each time I am asked, and I keep reaching the same conclusion: that the single greatest threat to free speech was and has always been public ignorance about, and/or hostility toward the freedom of speech.”-Nadine Strossen
To combat the almost cyclical nature of disinformation and ignorance in the pursuit of truth, Strossen remains steadfast in her belief that the focus should shift towards fostering media literacy and critical thinking rather than imposing restrictive measures.
“We have to focus more on the demand side of the equation and make people stop demanding disinformation. We’re going to have to be much more aggressive about instilling media literacy, information literacy, and critical information skills from the earliest age. We have to cultivate a healthy skepticism toward everything we see or read and train people to look for signs that something is fake,” Strossen said.
This commitment to focus on the demand is highlighted through Strossen’s philosophy of “continuous advocacy.” Her dedication to consistently reexamining and reinforcing the principles of free speech resonates with a commitment to intellectual inquiry and open discourse. As an influential figure in the realm of civil liberties, she welcomes the opportunity to engage with contemporaries and the next generations of scholars, embracing diverse perspectives and the need for ongoing dialogue.
“I took Emeritus status from teaching in 2019 so that I could devote myself full time to crusading against the increasingly illiberal and liberal attacks from both ends of the spectrum against the cluster of values surrounding free speech. I decided with my waning time on earth to preach to a larger audience about these universally important issues,” Strossen said.
In her quest, Strossen has participated in hundreds of speaking engagements every year since taking emeritus status, including prestigious academic conferences and various forums and discussion colloquialisms, championing the importance of free speech issues in academia and society at large. As an esteemed IHS scholarly partner, her commitment to advocacy intersects with the IHS mission, and she has participated in various IHS events within our scholarly network throughout the years.
“IHS has done wonderful work on advocating the issues of free speech, open inquiry, intellectual freedom and civil discourse.”-Nadine Strossen
In 2018, Strossen played a pivotal role in the “Threats to Academic Freedom and Free Speech” Academic Research Symposia at the 2019 IHS Academic Conference on Hate Speech, serving as the keynote speaker at both events. In 2020, thanks to IHS funding, Strossen was able to collaborate with professor Gabriel Brahm, another IHS faculty partner, at the Center for Academic and Intellectual Freedom at Northern Michigan University’s Liberty Center, and as a guest speaker at the event was able to engage with students directly on the important issue surrounding free speech and open inquiry in academia.
Most recently, in January of 2024, Strossen once again anchored a discussion on the importance of contemporary issues facing free speech in society today, joining IHS scholar Dr. James P. Messina at an IHS Academic Research Symposium on Democracy and Online Speech. Strossen’s extensive career coupled with her unwavering support for freedom of speech, self-expression, and open inquiry underscore a narrative of someone who is tireless in their pursuit of a more free and prosperous society.
IHS scholars and faculty partners are helping to shape a future where we can continue to enjoy the benefits of free speech and open inquiry both in academia and beyond. To learn more about our programs supporting free speech, and other classical liberal principles, visit TheIHS.org.
Nadine Strossen was interviewed and deferred to IHS editors for review of this piece.