Freedom of speech is essential to the successful functioning of any social group. It is by speech that we interact with one another. It is how we communicate our needs and offer to meet the needs of others. It is how we decide on collective action, informally in a group of friends or formally through the institutions of government.

Freedom of speech is vitally important to education. It is by speech that we teach. It is how we learn from one another. It is how we develop, test, and modify our thinking and expand our knowledge of the world around us. It is how we develop ourselves and strive to fulfill our human potential.

Freedom of speech is under relentless attack across the country. The assault takes many forms: heckling, cancellation, deplatforming, censorship, shaming, and, increasingly, threats of physical violence. Over 1,500 colleges and universities have implemented Orwellian programs of surveillance, anonymous denunciation, and re-education—so-called “bias reporting and response programs”—designed to chill free speech and crush diversity of viewpoint.

In trying times such as these, it is good to remember and take heart from those before us who have forthrightly affirmed the vital importance of free speech and their steadfast commitment to its preservation. In this spirit, let us remember the great American orator and former slave Frederick Douglass and his “Plea for Free Speech in Boston,” delivered 163 years ago this week.

On December 3, 1860, Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists assembled at the Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston to discuss the question, “How Shall Slavery Be Abolished?” They selected the date to coincide with the anniversary of John Brown’s death. The nation was deeply divided on the question of slavery. Abraham Lincoln had been elected one month earlier. South Carolina had declared its intention to secede from the Union. Most assumed that other southern states would soon follow suit. Political tensions had reached the boiling point.

A violent mob descended on the abolitionists. The mob invaded the hall, stormed the stage, and shut down the meeting. As often happens today, the authorities did not intervene to protect the right of Douglass and the others to freely speak on their controversial topic. Six days later, the abolitionists were able to resume their meeting at the Twenty-Eight Congregational Society, a Boston church founded by the abolitionist Theodore Parker.

At the conclusion of his prepared remarks, Douglass delivered one of the most significant statements ever made by an American on the importance of free speech and the open exchange of ideas in a democratic republic.

After praising Boston for its history of courageous support for the principles and institutions of the American Founding, Douglass lamented that “The principles of human liberty, even if correctly apprehended, find but limited support in this hour of trial . . . [and as a result] . . . freedom of speech is struck down.”

This is tragic, and dangerous, Douglass explained, because “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.” He called upon his audience, as he calls upon us today, to redouble our commitment to the restoration and preservation of free speech. Because, without it, our “freedom is a mockery.”

With our freedom of speech and other liberties under constant attack, all Americans should read, reread, and take to heart the stirring words of Frederick Douglass. An excerpt of the speech can be found through the National Constitution Center.

The Harvard Law School Student Chapter of the Federalist Society should be commended for hosting a program on November 29 to mark the anniversary of Douglass’s 1860 speech. The program featured Professor Nadine Strossen and Professor Randall Kennedy.

Note from the Editor: The Federalist Society takes no positions on particular legal and public policy matters. Any expressions of opinion are those of the author. We welcome responses to the views presented here. To join the debate, please email us at [email protected].