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Georgetown Law Graduates Told to Uphold Freedom of Speech by Civil Rights Leader
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Eleanor Holmes Norton

Summary: Civil rights leader Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton gave the commencement speech at Georgetown Law School.

Georgetown Law School graduates heard a powerful speech by non-voting D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton. Regarded as a leader in civil rights, Norton urged the graduating class to fight for freedom of speech from all opinions, according to The Atlantic.


Norton, born in 1973, went to Yale where she earned a law degree and masters in American studies. She then went on to join Mississippi Freedom Sumer as an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She gained experience clerking for a federal judge and as assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Perhaps Norton’s first big accomplishment was the representation of 60 women in a lawsuit against Newsweek. She was able to get the magazine’s practice of prohibiting women from reporter jobs overturned in 1970. The same year, she became the head of the New York City Human Rights Commission. Jimmy Carter appointed her to the head of the U.S. Equal Employment in Opportunity Commission in 1977. She also joined the protest movement against the apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s when she was a Georgetown law faculty member.

During Norton’s commencement speech, she focused on the importance of free speech. She commended the Parkland students for their activism regarding gun control but noted that she is worried about the trend developing of students not being willing to hear opinions that differ from their own. She discussed the times she defended the rights of racists to speak. Her plea to the Georgetown graduates was to use their knowledge of the law to help others understand that hearing all sides of an argument are critical.

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She said during the speech: “Yet there is recent disquieting evidence on college campuses of intolerance of speech at odds with the progressive views of 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 39 percent were Republicans, but bear in mind that the most controversial speakers on campuses today are from the far right.”

She adds, “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, who education equips them to explain in terms their generation can understand that the First Amendment right to speak must be reciprocal. …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.”

Do you think it is important to hear the opposing side? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

To learn more about when freedom of speech was squashed, read these articles:




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