Justice Alito Cautions on Eroding Free Speech Rights in Colleges

Justice Alito addresses critical issues at university graduation

by Zain ul Abedin
Justice Alito Cautions on Eroding Free Speech Rights in Colleges
© Alex Wong/Getty Images

In a stirring commencement address at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito expressed deep concern over the diminishing support for freedom of speech, particularly in the realm of higher education.

His speech, marked by a poignant warning about the erosion of foundational democratic principles, comes amid heightened tensions on college campuses across the nation. These tensions are often ignited by global political events, such as the recent protests against Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

Justice Alito emphasized the critical role that universities play in fostering a vibrant exchange of ideas. "Support for freedom of speech is declining dangerously," Alito observed, adding that "very few colleges live up to that ideal." He praised Franciscan University for maintaining a commitment to these principles, contrasting it sharply with the broader academic landscape where such ideals are increasingly under threat.

The Justice's commitment to free speech, however, is not without its nuances. He famously dissented alone in a 2011 Supreme Court decision that upheld Westboro Baptist Church's free speech rights to picket military funerals.

Alito argued that the nation’s commitment to debate does not extend to "vicious verbal assault," highlighting his judicial philosophy that weighs heavily on the impact of speech on public order and dignity.

Alito on Religious Rights

Beyond free speech, Alito has consistently voiced concerns over threats to religious freedom, echoing themes from his broader legal philosophy that often favors expanding religious rights.

In his speech, he cautioned the graduates about the challenges they may face in upholding their beliefs in increasingly secular professional and social settings. His remarks come at a critical juncture for the Supreme Court, which is poised to decide on major issues including abortion, gun rights, and the legal repercussions for former President Donald Trump's actions post-2020 election.

Notably, Alito authored the controversial 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which has set the stage for a profound reshaping of American jurisprudence. The address also resonated with recent public appearances by other conservative justices, including Clarence Thomas, who lamented the personal attacks he has faced, and Brett Kavanaugh, who reflected on the evolving acceptance of Supreme Court rulings.