The Forum | Freedom of Expression

ACTA’s President Signs Philadelphia Statement

August 11, 2020

Today, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), Dr. Michael Poliakoff, signed the Philadelphia Statement on Civil Discourse and the Strengthening of Liberal Democracy, which originally appeared in Newsweek. ACTA and Dr. Poliakoff are honored to join Christina Hoff Sommers, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Niall Ferguson, Robert P. George, and all the other thoughtful individuals who stand as the bulwark in the struggle to maintain our nation’s tradition of free expression.

“Higher education in particular needs to return to an ethic of dialogue and discussion, in which ideas can be voiced fearlessly in the common pursuit of truth,” stated President Poliakoff. “Our universities must embrace the power of debate and free inquiry in managing conflicts and disagreements. The unfettered pursuit of truth is the engine that drives the advancement of learning and meaningful public discourse. If we tolerate restrictive speech policies and permit the campus climate to deteriorate further, a generation of students will graduate without acquiring the habits that preserve a free society.”

Philadelphia Statement on Civil Discourse and Strengthening of Liberal Democracy

Social media mobs. Cancel culture. Campus speech policing. These are all part of life in today’s America. Freedom of expression is in crisis. Truly open discourse—the debates, exchange of ideas and arguments on which the health and flourishing of a democratic republic crucially depend—is increasingly rare. Ideologues demonize opponents to block debates on important issues and to silence people with whom they disagree.

We must ask ourselves: Is this the country we want? Surely not. We want—and to be true to ourselves, we need—to be a nation in which we and our fellow citizens of many different faiths, philosophies and persuasions can speak their minds and honor their deepest convictions without fear of punishment and retaliation.

If we seek a brighter future, we must relearn a fundamental truth: Our liberty and our happiness depend upon the maintenance of a public culture in which freedom and civility coexist—where people can disagree robustly, even fiercely, yet treat each other as human beings—and, indeed, as fellow citizens—not mortal enemies. “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist,” Frederick Douglass declared in 1860. Indeed, our liberal democracy is rooted in and dependent upon the shared understanding that all people have inherent dignity and worth, and that they must be treated accordingly.

A society that lacks comity and allows people to be shamed or intimidated into self-censorship of their ideas and considered judgments will not survive for long. As Americans, we desire a flourishing, open marketplace of ideas, knowing that it is the fairest and most effective way to separate falsehood from truth. Accordingly, dissenting and unpopular voices—be they of the Left or the Right—must be afforded the opportunity to be heard. They have often guided our society toward more just positions, which is why Frederick Douglass said freedom of speech is the “great moral renovator of society and government.”

The American tradition of freedom of expression, complete with its attendant responsibilities, is our school for democratic citizenship. It trains us to think critically, to defend our ideas and, at the same time, to be considerate of others whose creeds and convictions differ from our own. It enables us to learn from, and peacefully live with, one another despite differences. It further instills in us an understanding that the mere exposure to ideas we find offensive is not an act of “violence.” And it admonishes us that if we value the freedom of expression, we must extend the same measure of freedom to others, even to those whom we believe have gone very wrong in their thinking.

Tragically, we are losing these defining features of our democracy. Common decency and free speech are being dismantled through the stigmatizing practice of blacklisting ideological opponents, which has taken on the conspicuous form of “hate” labeling. Responsible organizations are castigated as “hate groups.” Honest people of good faith are branded “hate agents.” Even mainstream ideas are marginalized as “hate speech.” This threatens our ability to listen, discuss, debate and grow.

Blacklisting is spreading. Corporations are enacting “hate-speech” policies to protect people from “wrong” and “harmful” content. Similarly, colleges and universities are imposing speech regulations to make students “safe,” not from physical harm, but from challenges to campus orthodoxy. These policies and regulations assume that we, as citizens, are unable to think for ourselves and to make independent judgments. Instead of teaching us to engage, they foster conformism (“groupthink”) and train us to respond to intellectual challenges with one or another form of censorship.

Humanity has repeatedly tried expunging undesirable beliefs and ideas. What self-appointed speech arbiters, whether in the majority or in the minority, fail to grasp is that they will likely eventually become the targets. The winds inevitably shift, sometimes rapidly. The question is whether civility norms and free speech safeguards will remain in place to protect them, or whether they will become victims of the dangerous precedents they themselves have established and advanced.

To be sure, our free speech tradition is not absolutist. It does not embrace certain, limited categories of speech, such as defamation, obscenity, intimidation and threats, and incitement to violence. Yet the idea of “hate speech” exceptions to free speech principles is foreign to our free speech ideals, impossible to define, and often used by those wielding political, economic or cultural power to silence dissenting voices. That is why we must favor openness, to allow ideas and beliefs the chance to be assessed on their own merits; and we must be willing to trust that bad ideas will be corrected not through censorship, but through better arguments.

If we seek to change our country’s trajectory; if we desire unity rather than division; if we want a political life that is productive and inspiring; if we aspire to be a society that is pluralistic and free, one in which we can forge our own paths and live according to our own consciences, then we must renounce ideological blacklisting and recommit ourselves to steadfastly defending freedom of speech and passionately promoting robust civil discourse.

Adam J. White, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute

Alan Sears, former president, CEO and general counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom

Dr. Arthur Herman, senior fellow and director, Quantum Alliance Initiative, Hudson Institute

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, research fellow, Hoover Institution and founder, AHA Foundation

Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, senior research scholar, Council of the Humanities and director, Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship, James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University

Dr. Carol M. Swain, retired professor of political science and law, Vanderbilt University

Dr. Charles Murray, F. A. Hayek emeritus chair in cultural studies, American Enterprise Institute

Charlie Copeland, president and CEO, Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute

Christopher DeMuth, distinguished fellow, Hudson Institute and former president of the American Enterprise Institute

Dr. Daniel Mark, assistant professor of political science, Villanova University and former chairman, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

Rev. Dean Nelson, chairman, Frederick Douglass Foundation

Eli Lehrer, President, R Street Institute

Elise Westhoff, president and CEO, The Philanthropy Roundtable

Howard Slugh, founder and general counsel, Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty

Ian Lindquist, fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center and executive director, The Public Interest Fellowship

Dr. James Lindsay, founder and president, New Discourses

Dr. John C. Eastman, Henry Salvatori professor of law and community service and director of the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, Dale E. Fowler School of Law, Chapman University

John Stonestreet, president, Colson Center for Christian Worldview

Karl Zinsmeister, The Philanthropy Roundtable, and former director, White House Domestic Policy Council

Kevin D. Williamson, roving correspondent, National Review

Lisa B. Nelson, CEO, American Legislative Exchange Council

Dr. Mary Tedeschi Eberstadt, senior research fellow, Faith & Reason Institute

Dr. Melissa Moschella, assistant professor of philosophy, Catholic University of America, visiting scholar, B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and Edwin J. Feulner Institute, The Heritage Foundation

Michael P. Farris, president and CEO, Alliance Defending Freedom

Dr. Michael B. Poliakoff, president, American Council of Trustees and Alumni

Mike Gonzalez, senior fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy and Angeles T. Arredondo e pluribus unum fellow, The Heritage Foundation

Dr. Niall Ferguson, Milbank family senior fellow, Hoover Institution

Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, Henry Wendt Chair in political economy, American Enterprise Institute

Nina Shea, director, Center for Religious Freedom, Hudson Institute

Pete Peterson, dean, Braun family dean’s chair, School of Public Policy and senior fellow, Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, Pepperdine University

Dr. Peter Boghossian, assistant professor of philosophy, Portland State University

Dr. Peter W. Wood, president, National Association of Scholars

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, president, Coalition for Jewish Values

Dr. Robert P. George, McCormick professor of jurisprudence and director, James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University

Robert Shibley, executive director, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Roger Ream, president, The Fund for American Studies

Dr. Russell Moore, president, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Southern Baptist Convention

Dr. Samuel Gregg, research director, Acton Institute

Dr. Stanley Kurtz, senior fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center

The Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia

Dr. Thomas F. Farr, president, Religious Freedom Institute

Victor Riches, president and CEO, Goldwater Institute

Dr. Wilfred M. McClay, G.T. and Libby Blankenship chair in the history of liberty, University of Oklahoma


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More