Nadine Strossen speaks out against censorship

Former ACLU president always in favor of free speech


Lilah Kimble

Nadine Strossen speaks during Session Two of the 2020 Mock Convention

Virginia Laurie and Laura Calhoun

Nadine Strossen, the first female president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), advocated for free speech at the 27th Washington and Lee Mock Convention.

“Free speech is not just about self expression, it is the essence of self-government, as represented in this convention,” Strossen said. “Censorship is the greatest enemy of human rights causes and free speech is the greatest ally.”

Strossen said she has visited Washington and Lee’s campus in the past to debate issues of discrimination and free speech during her time with the ACLU. One debate was with a top commander at Virginia Military Institute because the ACLU was suing the school because they did not allow women to attend.

“I was the underdog, advocating the hated issues,” Strossen said. “The ACLU was way outside the political mainstream, not only in the country as a whole, but even on this campus.”

Jenna Marvet, ‘21 thought that Strossen’s perspective on her other visits to Washington and Lee were useful to the speech.

“I appreciated her contextualizing her career and Washington and Lee’s history by mentioning her experiences here decades ago,” Marvet said.

Strossen emphasized that it, in her work with the ACLU, it is important that she remains politically independent. Still, she did not shy away from talking about specific issues faced by the university. Notably, she mentioned the current petition started by Washington and Lee Law School students to make the inclusion of George Washington and Robert E. Lee’s portraits on their diplomas optional. Strossen did not address the inclusion of portraits, but rather the choice of university name on the diplomas. 

“[I am] not taking a side on this petition”, Strossen said. “If you do get the option of choosing what institutional name is on your diploma, maybe choose Liberty from Liberty Hall, which has great historic pedigree.”

Lauren Ellenz, ‘23, said she did not appreciate Strossen’s attempt to address the diploma issue.

“That was frustrating,” Ellenz said. “It’s one thing to not be able to speak on a university’s specific issues, but it’s worse to mischaracterize them.”

Strossen went on to talk about the controversy surrounding Washington and Lee’s namesakes.

“They were fallible human beings,” Strossen said. “We should focus on their vision, rather than their blindspots.” 

Strossen shared several stories about advocating for free speech even in times of intense struggle in her life and the lives of her family. Strossen said she is inspired by Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer who became a civil rights icon after being intentionally hit by a car while peacefully counter-protesting during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Strossen said she was inspired by Bro’s words when they were both on a panel about free speech and the Unite the Right rally last year.

“I thought, oh my goodness, it’s really going to be hard to support, verbally and vigorously, free speech for Unite the Right folks given what one of them did,” Strossen said. “To my amazement, she gave the most eloquent, passionate defense of free speech, exceeding my own capabilities by far.”

Strossen also shared the story of her father, who was enslaved in the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II for being a “Jew of second degree.” The camp was liberated one day before her father was scheduled to be sterilized. Strossen said that even this knowledge did not make her wish for censorship.

“Given this background, if I believed that censorship would have prevented the Nazis from coming to power, would’ve prevented the Holocaust or genocide, I would’ve been in favor of it,” Strossen said. “Obviously, [censorship] did not suppress their rise to power.”

Strossen promoted battling hateful rhetoric and ideology not through censorship but with counter-speech. Strossen stressed the importance of letting hate fail on its own accord.

“We must neutrally protect freedom for all ideas, no matter how hated or hateful we find them,” Strossen said. “The most effective response is to answer back.

She spoke directly to Mock Convention attendees to end her speech, thanking them for their part in promoting civil discourse and vigorous debate.

“I want to thank you for exercising your most precious right: the right not to remain silent,” Strossen said.

Strossen served as the President of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1991-2008. She was the first woman and youngest President of America’s largest and oldest civil liberties organization. Strossen is currently the John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law, Emerita at New York Law School and sits on the Council of Foreign Relations. Strossen has written three books about free speech, civil rights and civil liberties, as well as spoken on over 500 campuses, including Washington and Lee.