When I was asked to make this address I wondered what I had to say to you boys who are graduating. And I think I have one thing to say. If you wish to be useful, never take a course that will silence you. Refuse to learn anything that implies collusion, whether it be a clerkship or a curacy, a legal fee or a post in a university. Retain the power of speech no matter what other power you may lose. If you can take this course, and in so far as you take it, you will bless this country. In so far as you depart from this course, you become dampers, mutes, and hooded executioners.
As a practical matter, a mere failure to speak out upon occassions where no statement is asked or expected from you, and when the utterance of an uncalled for suspicion is odious, will often hold you to a concurrence in palpable iniquity. Try to raise a voice that will be heard from here to Albany and watch what comes forward to shut off the sound. It is not a German sergeant, nor a Russian officer of the precinct. It is a note from a friend of your father's, offering you a place at his office. This is your warning from the secret police. Why, if you any of young gentleman have a mind to make himself heard a mile off, you must make a bonfire of your reputations, and a close enemy of most men who would wish you well.
I have seen ten years of young men who rush out into the world with their messages, and when they find how deaf the world is, they think they must save their strength and wait. They believe that after a while they will be able to get up on some little eminence from which they can make themselves heard. "In a few years," reasons one of them, "I shall have gained a standing, and then I shall use my powers for good." Next year comes and with it a strange discovery. The man has lost his horizon of thought, his ambition has evaporated; he has nothing to say. I give you this one rule of conduct. Do what you will, but speak out always. Be shunned, be hated, be ridiculed, be scared, be in doubt, but don't be gagged. The time of trial is always. Now is the appointed time.Commencement Address to the Graduating Class of Hobart College, 1900
The fallacy is to believe that under a dictatorial government you can be free inside. Quite a number of people console themselves with this thought, now that totalitarianism in one form or another is visibly on the up-grade in every part of the world. Out in the street the loudspeakers bellow, the flags flutter from the rooftops, the police with their tommy-guns prowl to and fro, the face of the Leader, four feet wide, glares from every hoarding; but up in the attics the secret enemies of the regime can record their thoughts in perfect freedom — that is the idea, more or less.
We have a responsibility, we know. That’s how Berlin became the freest city that I go to because we know, because we have a responsibility, because we remember, because we have been on both sides of the wall. That must not be lost now. If we forget, no other forgetting will ever happen. Everything will be remembered. Everything you read, all through life, everything you listened to, everything you watched, everything you searched for.
Surely we can pass along to the next generation a world freer than that. Surely we must. What if we don’t?
What will they say when they realize that we lived at the end of a thousand years of struggling for freedom of thought. At the end, when we had almost everything, we gave it away, for convenience, for social networking. Because Mr. Zuckerberg asked us to. Because we couldn’t find a better way to talk to our friends. Because we loved the beautiful pretty things that felt so warm in the hand. Because we didn’t really care about the future of freedom of thought, because we considered that to be someone else’s business. Because we thought it was over. Because we believed we were free. Because we didn’t think there was any struggling left to do. That’s why we gave it all away.
Is that what we're gonna tell them?
Free thought requires free media. Free media requires free technology. We require ethical treatment when we go to read, to write, to listen and to watch. Those are the hallmarks of our politics. We need to keep those politics until we die. Because if we don’t, something else will die. Something so precious that many, many of our fathers and mothers gave their life for it. Something so precious, that we understood it to define what it meant to be human; it will die.
I am well acquainted with all the arguments against freedom of thought and speech — the arguments which claim that it cannot exist, and the arguments which claim that it ought not to. I answer simply that they don’t convince me and that our civilisation over a period of four hundred years has been founded on the opposite notice.
[..] intellectual freedom is a deep-rooted tradition without which our characteristic western culture could only doubtfully exist. From that tradition many of our intellectuals are visibly turning away. They have accepted the principle that a book should be published or suppressed, praised or damned, not on its merits but according to political expediency. And others who do not actually hold this view assent to it from sheer cowardice.