Commencement 2023: ‘Let Your Voices Rise’ first appeared in the July 2023 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
On May 30, 2023, on a gorgeous morning in Princeton Stadium, I had the privilege of congratulating our 2023 graduates on their achievements. I used the sad occasion of Harry Belafonte’s recent passing to reflect on the historic connection between our expansive free speech rights and the fight for racial equality—and urged the Great Class of 2023 to let their voices rise for freedom and equality. Here are my remarks. — C.L.E.
In a few minutes, all of you will walk out of this stadium as newly minted graduates of this University. Before you do, however, it is my privilege to say a few words about the path ahead.
I want to begin by saying something about the honorary degrees that we conferred just a few moments ago. Our purpose in awarding those degrees is not only to recognize the extraordinary achievements of the recipients, but to offer them to our new graduates as inspiring examples of the many ways that one might live a life of leadership and service to others.
One great pleasure of my job each year is getting to meet our honorary degree recipients, welcome them to the University, and learn a little about them.
In 2015, I was honored to share this stage with, among others, the vocalist and civil rights leader Harry Belafonte. Though many people remember Belafonte as an entertainer, Princeton conferred upon him an honorary doctorate of laws in recognition of his social activism and humanitarian work.
Harry Belafonte passed away just over a month ago at the age of 96. I would like to offer you some reflections prompted both by his memory and by current events.
I want, in particular, to tell you a story drawn from the struggle for racial equality in America. It is a story about Harry Belafonte and the origins of the American right to free speech. And it is a story about the moral courage of young people, about how their leadership played a crucial role in our country’s long and unfinished quest to establish a more perfect union and a more just society.
It is also a story that connects very directly to the history that Congresswoman Terri Sewell spoke about in her inspirational Class Day address yesterday.
Harry Belafonte was one of the principal fundraisers for Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights campaigns, and he had a leadership role in the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South.
In March 1960, that committee published a full-page advertisement in the New York Times. The headline for the advertisement was “Heed Their Rising Voices.”
The “rising voices” were those of Black students in the American South, who, in the words of the advertisement, were engaged in “non-violent demonstrations in positive affirmation of the right to live in human dignity as guaranteed by the [United States] Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
The advertisement pled for help and support, because, it said, the students were “being met by an unprecedented wave of terror by those who would deny and negate” the freedoms promised by the American Constitution.
The advertisement also contained some serious errors. It said, for example, that an Alabama university had padlocked its dining hall in an attempt to starve protesting students, which was not true.
L. B. Sullivan, who was the police commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama, sued the New York Times. He claimed that the advertisement had libeled him, and he won a $500,000 award.
That was the largest libel award in Alabama history, and, if it had been upheld, it might have been enough to put the New York Times out of business.
The Times took the case to the United States Supreme Court. Their chances did not look good. The Court had a lousy record in free speech cases. It had never held that the First Amendment limited libel law in any way, and it had for the most part turned a blind eye to McCarthyism and earlier instances of political persecution.
In Times v. Sullivan, however, the Supreme Court rewrote the law of free speech. It ruled unanimously in favor of the New York Times, and it created a new and powerful restriction on libel law. The Court held that everyone had the right to criticize public officials without fear of legal liability unless their statements were not only false but also made with “actual malice.”
The Supreme Court thereby, suddenly and in a single decision, created one of the most speech-protective legal doctrines in history—and, for that matter, in the world today.
Justice William J. Brennan, from the great state of New Jersey, wrote the opinion of the Court and declared that there is “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” (1)
When people talk about free speech rights in America, they often depict them as the legacy of the American founding in the 18th century, or as the product of elegant dissents authored by Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis in the early 20th century.
Without meaning any disrespect to the Constitution’s framers or to those legendary justices, this much is clear: the expansive, legally enforceable free speech rights that Americans cherish today first emerged in the 1960s during and because of the fight for racial justice in the South, a fight whose leaders included Black student activists.
I insist on this point today because there is a movement afoot in this country right now to drive a wedge between the constitutional ideals of equality and free speech. There are people who claim, for example, that when colleges and universities endorse the value of diversity and inclusivity or teach about racism and sexism, they are “indoctrinating students” or in some other way endangering free speech.
That is wrong. It is wrong as a historical matter, and it is wrong as a matter of our constitutional ideals, which require us to care simultaneously about the achievement of real, meaningful equality and what Justice Brennan called “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” debate on public issues.
These ideals are at risk. PEN America, an organization dedicated to free expression, reported in February that, in just the first two months of this year, state legislatures had already introduced 86 “educational gag orders” that restrict the ability of schools, colleges, universities, and libraries to teach or disseminate information about inequalities within American society. (2)
Some of these bills prohibit discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity. Some prohibit teaching disfavored views about race, racism, and American history. Others seek to undermine the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities or to abolish tenure, thereby enabling politicians to control what professors can teach or publish.
Christine Emba, who graduated from Princeton in 2010 and now writes for the Washington Post, visited the University of Florida last month to examine how that state’s censorship laws were affecting students and faculty.
She talked to a University of Florida student, Emmaline Moye, who said this about her college experience: “Being exposed to people who I’ve never been exposed to before, people of different races and ethnicities and genders and sexualities, and, as a queer student, hearing those things talked about makes me feel heard and seen.”
But Emmaline added that because of the newly passed laws, “I’m so scared for people like me … they won’t get that feeling of liberation, of getting to be who you are and know[ing that] you’re not alone.” (3)
We must not let that happen.
We must stand up and speak up together for the values of free expression and full inclusivity for people of all identities.
As I said earlier, the advertisement that Harry Belafonte put in the New York Times more than 60 years ago began with the headline “Heed Their Rising Voices.” It concluded with the message, “Your Help is Urgently Needed … NOW!!”
To all of you who receive your undergraduate or graduate degree from Princeton University today:
Your help is urgently needed—now!
So, as you go forth from this University, let your voices rise.
Let them rise for equality.
Let them rise for the value of diversity.
Let them rise for freedom, for justice, and for love among the people of this earth.
Wherever your individual journeys may lead you in the years ahead, I hope that you also continue to travel together, as classmates and as alumni of this University, in pursuit of a better world.
All of us on this platform have great confidence in your ability to take on that challenge. We applaud your persistence, your talent, your achievements, your values, and your aspirations.
We send our best wishes as you embark upon the path that lies ahead, and we hope it will bring you back to this campus many times. We look forward to welcoming you when you return, and we say, to Princeton University’s Great Class of 2023, congratulations!
1 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)
2 Jonathan Friedman, Jeffrey Sachs, Jeremy C. Young, Samantha LaFrance, “Educational Censorship Continues: The 2023 Legislative Sessions So Far,” February 16, 2023.
3 Emba, Christine, “How Alarming Are Florida’s Higher-Ed Reforms? Students Weigh In,” Washington Post, April 19, 2023.